By Anne O'Connor
SHIRLEY -- Selectmen ran afoul of the Open Meeting Law when the chairman had a state police officer clear the room, but did not violate the law when it passed three motions during an agenda topic listed as a discussion, the state Attorney General's office determined in two separate findings.
The board violated the law when it improperly closed a portion of its Nov. 1, 2016 meeting to the public, said a May 8 letter from Assistant Attorney General Hanne Rush to town counsel Brian Maser of KP Law. The complaint was filed by Alfreda Cromwell.
The disciplinary hearing was held in open session, not executive session, at the request of Cromwell.
Chairman Kendra Dumont did not give individuals prior warning that they would be removed after the audience reacted out loud. Dumont said she was going to have the room cleared. One person was removed by a state trooper.
A few minutes later, after some audience members stood and clapped, Dumont waved her hand in the direction of the door and said "out" several times. The trooper then said "everybody out" and the room was cleared.
An hour after the room was cleared, Cromwell was demoted from police sergeant to officer and the meeting was reopened to the public.
Cromwell was fired at a later meeting on Nov. 9. The attorney general wrote, "While these violations are indeed serious, we decline to consider nullifying the Board's actions because it terminated the complainant at a subsequent, open meeting.
The board was ordered to comply with the law in the future.
The finding is a huge win for Cromwell, said Rico Cappucci. Now the chairman of the Board of Selectmen, he was on the board when the violation occurred. The other two selectmen, Dumont and Robert Prescott, were recalled in January.
The finding will be "hurtful" for the town down the road, Cappucci said. The former sergeant has filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
The complaint also alleges that a note passed during the Nov. 9 meeting violated the Open Meeting Law. It does not, the letter said. It was sent from the town administrator to the chairman and did not involve a quorum of the board.
Another complaint filed by Bryan Dumont, the former chairman's husband, alleges the meeting notice for the Feb. 27 selectmen's meeting lacked sufficient detail.
The selectmen did not violate the Open Meeting Law when it passed three motions during an agenda topic listed as a discussion, the state Attorney General's office determined.
The letter from Assistant Attorney General Kevin W. Manganaro was sent to Lauren F. Goldberg at KP Law, the town counsel. It was dated May 1.
During a new business item listed as "Safety and Work Report (Heartle), Discussion" on Feb. 27, the board took three votes. They suspended the police chief with pay, named someone to temporarily assume the role and approved more investigation on allegations raised in a report prepared by investigator Jean Haertl of Safety and Respect at Work, LLC.
"The notice satisfied the Board's minimum obligations under the Open Meeting Law," the letter said. The discussion and votes were within the topic as listed, but the board should include additional information on future meeting notices to better inform the public about topics that will be discussed.
The notice topic was deficient in certain respects, the letter said. It failed to identify the police chief and did not specify any anticipated actions. The investigator's name was misspelled and the company name was misstated.
However, the report had received "significant media coverage" and pointed to a Sun story published on Dec. 12, 2016. "A reasonable member of the public could have read the notice and understood the context of the report," the letter said.
In a footnote, the letter said that other allegations made in the complaint do not fall under the Open Meeting Law and declined to review them.
"I thought we were in the right," Cappucci said. "We're trying to do everything we can to stay within the guidelines."
The town brought in a representative from KP Law to go over the Open Meeting Law, he said.
Dumont replied to a request for comment by email.
"The Decision of the OML reviewer clearly indicates that the Selectmen could/should have been more clear and that additional information should have been submitted," he wrote. "It's obvious to anyone watching the 27 February 2017 meeting that the chairman was intentionally misleading and had an agenda going into the meeting, supported by the fact he had motions prepared in advance and that he and other board members KNEW what their intentions were prior to the meeting.
"This board's claims of open government and transparency only applies when it suits their agenda," he added. "Further exhibited by their refusal to release executive minutes (so voted on their 8 May 2017 meeting) clearly indicating their attempt to cover up the fact that the chief and others were properly disciplined as a result of the Haertl report. Thereby showing their claim 'that no action was taken' as a rationale for a second investigation into the Haertl report and the placing of the Chief on administrative leave to be a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts as they exist. Their agenda is obvious, in an attempt to eliminate the Chief without cause to allow for a cessation of action in a disgraced former officer and a convicted felon. A sad day for this town indeed, but this is not finished."
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