TOWNSEND -- The Water Department has filed a lawsuit against the town itself, alleging that the Board of Selectmen and town administrator are improperly attempting to exercise control over the department.
Both parties have been jockeying for authority for several months, according to the complaint filed in court. The elected Board of Water Commissioners asserts that it has sole control of the department, citing state law and a Town Meeting vote, while selectmen argue that water employees report to them as do most other departments in town.
The lawsuit came several days after town officials warned of legal action against the Water Department over benefits that Superintendent Paul Rafuse was receiving -- benefits that water officials say are their right to award and town officials say are a violation of a collective bargaining agreement.
"It became readily apparent that the only way to get this thing addressed was, unfortunately, to file a lawsuit," said Steve Doucette, the attorney representing the Water Department.
The case, which asks the court to declare the Water Department exclusively under control of the Water Commissioners and to order town officials not to interfere with its work, was filed in Middlesex Superior Court on July 31, according to the online docket.
Rafuse deferred comment to Doucette. Town Administrator James Kreidler could not be reached for comment.
The first shots fired in the legal dispute came in March, when Doucette -- whom the department retained as its own attorney rather than using the town's legal counsel -- wrote to selectmen informing them "that the Water Department was an independent body politic and not under the direction and control of the Board of Selectmen," according to the complaint.
In May, Town Meeting passed an article that, per a section of state law, gave "the Board of Water Commissioners exclusive charge and control of the Water Department, subject to all lawful by-laws and to such instructions, rules and regulations as the Town may from time to time impose by its vote."
Doucette said similar processes took place in Littleton and Templeton, and that Water Departments can become entirely independent by vote under Massachusetts General Law chapter 69B.
He said Water Department officials attempted to set a meeting with selectmen to begin the transition, but were unsuccessful.
During recent months, the disagreement grew. The Board of Selectmen refused to pay the legal fees for the Water Department's independent attorney. Water Commissioners voted to grant additional benefits to Rafuse, including pay for weekend standby duties and use of a town vehicle, to which town officials argue he is not entitled.
In a July 26 email to Nathan Mattila, chair of the Board of Water Commissioners, Kreidler wrote on behalf of selectmen that Rafuse's position was a town position covered by a collective bargaining agreement with the AFSCME Council 93 union and that the benefits recently awarded to him violated terms of that agreement.
"To be clear, if Mr. Rafuse submits a time sheet seeking compensation that he is not lawfully entitled to receive, appropriate action will need to be taken," Kreidler wrote in the email, which was included in the Water Department's complaint. "Similarly, if Mr. Rafuse operates a town owned vehicle, or even more egregiously takes such a vehicle after hours and out of state to his home, that matter too will be addressed."
Five days later, the Water Department filed its lawsuit.
"The Water Commissioners very much want to resolve this as quickly as possible," Doucette said. "They don't want this to go forward. They tried everything they could to avoid this, and now, they want to try everything possible to resolve it. They welcome any invitation to meet with selectmen."
It is unclear at this point how town officials will respond. No timeline has been set on the case.
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