(SUN/Chris Lisinski)

BOSTON -- The fate of a yearlong, expensive effort to recall two Townsend selectmen will hinge on whether the state's highest court sees four parenthetical phrases in a piece of legislation as examples or as binding limits.

Lawyers for Selectman Cindy King and the residents who sought her removal presented their arguments before the Supreme Judicial Court Friday, likely the final step in a lengthy process of determining whether a recall election will in fact take place.

The case has made its way through the court since last year, with both the selectmen and the recallers finding themselves victorious at various points before the matter was appealed higher and higher. Most recently, the state's Appeals Court ruled that a recall should be allowed to take place, and King then asked the state's highest court to weigh in.

Her attorney, John Dombrowski, argues that the grounds described in the recall petitions do not sufficiently match the conditions required for removal of a public official in an act governing the process in Townsend. The petition alleges, for example, that King neglected her duty by not supporting a public comment period at meetings and by interfering in the police department's affairs, but the recall legislation itself describes neglect of duty in a parenthetical aside as "repeated absences from meetings without just cause."

Dombrowski argued that the definition is both strict and not met by the recallers' case.


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"The grounds in the recall affidavit are not remotely close to the grounds in the recall act itself," Dombrowski said.

Ira Zaleznik, who represents the recall supporters, contended instead that the descriptions in the recall act are mere suggestions and that limiting the basis for action so specifically would be unreasonable. He used the act's section on corruption, which is described as "conviction of a felony involving moral turpetude, conviction of bribery, or extortion," as an example.

"Suppose a selectperson is arrested for driving under the influence," Zaleznik said. "If you interpret those as exclusive categories, Townsend would not be permitted to pursue a recall on those grounds."

Five justices of the Supreme Judicial Court -- Chief Justice Ralph Gants as well as David Lowy, Frank Gaziano, Kimberly Budd and Scott Kafker -- asked probing questions of both attorneys.

Kafker at one point contended that the neglect of duty section in the recall affidavit "doesn't seem to be even close to the examples" in the recall act.

The legal question at the heart of the case appears tricky. As judges pointed out, Townsend's recall act does not indicate that the parenthetical descriptions after the conditions for recall are examples or exact. Attorneys cited previous recall cases in Saugus and Hadley, but in those, the recall legislation allowed removal for any reason or only listed categories without any description, implying an openness of interpretation.

About a dozen people with connections to the case -- including former Police Chief Robert Eaton, who was fired by the Board of Selectmen last year -- attended the Friday hearing. King was not visibly present.

The recall effort in Townsend has been ongoing for more than a year. Petitioners began gathering signatures in February 2016 amid controversy over town investigations into the police department, and an election was scheduled to take place in June before courts blocked it.

King's colleague on the board, Gordon Clark, was also a recall target, and he had fought the effort in court as well. But both attorneys conceded Friday that the latest case is effectively moot for Clark: his term as selectmen expires at the April 23 town elections and he is not seeking re-election, so even if the court rules in favor of a recall, Clark will almost certainly be out of office by the time one could be scheduled.

The court had not yet issued a ruling as of Friday afternoon, and it is unclear when a decision will come down. But, given that the court is the state's highest, whichever party is unsatisfied with the outcome will likely be out of options.

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.