By Hiroko Sato
GROTON -- The Board of Selectmen violated the state Open Meeting law in April when then-Chairman Peter Cunningham contacted each board member to gauge support for his idea to waive permit fees for the Blood Farm reconstruction, according to the state Attorney General's Office.
In a statement issued Monday, Assistant Attorney General Mark Higgins said Cunningham's action constituted "active solicitation" of board members' opinions outside a public meeting and it violated the Open Meeting law.
The case stemmed from a complaint that Arthur Campbell, publisher of The Groton Line, an online publication, filed with the AG's Office in May. Higgins noted his office decided to resolve the complaint by "informal action."
"We find that certain telephone calls between Board members regarding a waiver of building fees constituted impermissible deliberation outside of a properly noticed open meeting," Higgins wrote.
Higgins added his office is not taking any further action and the matter is closed.
Cunningham said Wednesday he accepts Higgins' findings.
"It is what it is," Cunningham said, adding that he never felt he committed a major violation.
"It's duly noted. I personally won't do it again," Selectman Stuart Schulman of his participation in the private conversation with Cunningham on the fee waiver.
According to Higgins, two of the selectmen warned Cunningham that the private conversation about the fee waiver would be inappropriate.
"I'm quite surprised that other members of the board did not see it as a violation of the law," Petropoulos said Wednesday.
According to Higgins' statement, Cunningham called each selectman in April, asking what they thought of his idea to waive building permit fees for Blood Farm, a slaughterhouse on West Main Street that is under reconstruction after a December fire that destroyed its main building.
Cunningham never proposed the idea in public meetings. That's because he figured it wasn't a good idea as the result of his conversations with some selectmen, Cunningham said.
But the local weekly Groton Herald published an editorial April 23 opposing Cunningham's idea, according to Higgins' statement.
In response, Cunningham wrote a letter to the editor to The Groton Line disclosing the private phone calls he made.
"We also acknowledge that the Chair (Cunningham) took appropriate action by disclosing the improper communications in an open meeting (held May 12) in an effort to respond to the complaint," Higgins wrote.
Cunningham did not try to promote his idea after Degen and Petropoulos raised concerns about having such discussions, according to Higgins.
After Campbell filed his complaint with the attorney general, town counsel argued that distributing information related to an upcoming selectmen's meeting was not in violation of the law and that the waiver of administrative fees, over which the board has control, is not a matter of public business, Higgins said.
Higgins said, however, that active solicitation of an opinion of a board member outside a posted meeting becomes violation of the law when reaching a quorum. He also believes any discussions that would influence the town manager's execution of his duties is a matter of public business, Higgins wrote.
Petropoulos said Cunningham effectively conducted a poll outside a public meeting, which is "blatant violation" of the Open Meeting law.
Degen said Cunningham made it clear when calling him that other selectmen had already provided their opinions on the fee waiver and he now wanted Degen's opinion. Degen noted this was his first encounter with this type of violation.
"My reading of the ruling is that, 'Yeah, you made a mistake, but it's not that terrible. Don't do it again,' " Schulman said.