By M.E. Jones
SHIRLEY -- One item on new business on the selectmen's agenda Monday night was whether to seek new town counsel, perhaps even before the June 2 Annual Town Meeting.
Town Administrator Patrice Garvin brought the matter to the board's attention, in part prompted by a miffed town resident whose patience has been tried by the slow progress of a legal opinion that Garvin has been waiting for.
But apparently it's not an isolated incident.
"There's been some concern" about lengthy response time from current counsel, Gary Brackett of the Worcester law firm Brackett and Lucas, she said. It typically takes at least a week to get an opinion on matters sent to Brackett for review, Garvin said, and in one case it took three weeks. Such delays put her credibility on the line, she told the board.
So Garvin, accompanied by Selectmen Chairman Kendra Dumont "had an initial conversation" with another law firm, Kopelman and Paige, of Boston.
Garvin said she's worked with the firm's attorneys before in Groton and is comfortable with them and confident in their services. But they charge more. "I know cost is a concern,' she said. Current counsel bills $145 per hour, she said, while the hourly rate the town might expect to pay the other firm is $160 per hour.
But she thinks the larger firm, with its extensive resources and multiple legal specialists on staff, can deliver more for the money, Garvin said. Plus they offer free staff training.
With town meeting coming up and the smaller law firm's lead attorney on leave, she's worried, Garvin said. "It might be a good time to switch."
Dumont said the town retained Kopelman and Paige as its town counsel when she first joined the board, but for reasons linked to a legal issue at town hall, she and other board members sought another firm. "It was a goal of mine," she said.
In her view, Brackett and Lucas has served the town well, Dumont said, but she shared Garvin's concerns. "I'm on the fence," she said.
Selectman David Swain said the issue dates back to before Garvin was hired last year. The problem is that Brackett and Lucas is a small firm and without legal specialists on board must research matters as they come up, he said. The hourly rate gap doesn't bother him as much as the lag time, he said.
Brackett and Lucas was "responsive" to him on a town personnel issue, but Kopleman and Paige has the "breadth and depth" he's looking for now, Swain said.
Selectman Robert Prescott suggested giving current counsel a heads up, to see if they can correct the problem before making a change. "I'd like to reach out first" rather than simply say "we're done," he said.
Garvin agreed to do that so the board can makes its decision next week.
In other business, the board appointed David Bryce of Fitchburg as a full-time dispatcher and got an update from Collector Holly Haase and Assistant Treasurer Janet Poitras on the status of the tax-taking process, which Garvin reenergized recently.
Basically, the two have been researching every account on the tax-taking list with an eye to recouping long overdue balances. Initially, the goal is to collect as much of the back taxes as possible before placing liens on the properties. The final step is foreclosure.
Given that most accounts on the tax-taking list are decades in arrears, the most likely outcome is foreclosure, with amounts due that at this point exceed what the property owners might voluntarily pay, even without interest and fees added on, Haase said.
Still, if starting up the process again, multiple notices and all, jogs someone into making good on back taxes, Haase said she's ready to work out a payment plan.
The end goal is to get those properties back onto town tax rolls one way or another, selectmen agreed.