GROTON — Only weeks after every town official was required to attend a seminar on the state’s Open Meeting Law, the Board of Selectmen was slapped with a complaint that it had violated the law last March when members conducted a review of the town manager’s job performance behind closed doors.
The question has since been filed as a formal complaint by Groton Line editor Art Campbell. It had its origins in a belief by Selectman Jack Petropoulos that the board was in violation of the OML.
The matter was also reviewed by the town’s legal counsel who agreed that a violation had occurred.
The violation comes almost on the heels of a previous charge also made by Campbell who, at the time, complained that communications between then selectman Peter Cunningham and fellow board members involving waiving permit fees for the owners of Blood Farm was a violation of the OML.
At the time, Blood Farm was in the process of rebuilding following a fire that destroyed a slaughterhouse, part of the family’s meat-packing business.
As a result of that instance, the board was found at fault with selectmen and other town employees and members of boards and committees required to attend a seminar on how the Open Meeting Law worked.
Selectmen even voted to require that all employees who could not attend the seminar present a certificate as proof that they had either attended a seminar on the Open Meeting Law in person or on line.
The issue once again reared its head at the board’s meeting of Dec. 8 when Chairman Joshua Degen opened the session with remarks detailing the latest chapter in the OML story.
This time, he said, the complaint followed actions by fellow board member Jack Petropoulos who believed that a review conducted by selectmen in March of town manager Mark Haddad’s job performance should not have been done in executive session.
“Jack Petropoulos contacted the attorney general’s office because he believed that there was an Open Meeting Law violation relative to the performance review of the town manager back in March of 2014,” said Degen. “Based on the response from the AG, they were of the belief that selectmen had violated the Open Meeting Law. Jack and I sat down with the Town Clerk last week and after discussing it, we all felt that I should pose questions to town counsel which I did.
“That was followed by a meeting the next morning with town counsel,” continued Degen. “Based on that meeting, it appeared that the Board of Selectmen had indeed violated the Open Meeting Law and I have been working directly with counsel to come up with a way to remedy the violation.”
Unfortunately, events did not end there.
“In the meantime, however, Art Campbell of the Groton Line, and Mr. Petropoulos communicated with one another after the meeting I had with Jack and the Town Clerk,” said Degen. “Jack conveyed the information that he shared with me to Campbell. Subsequently, Campbell then filed his own Open Meeting Law complaint against selectmen over the weekend giving selectmen 14 days to respond.”
For his part, Petropoulos said that his involvement in the matter was strictly as an arbitrator as he tried to head off Campbell’s intention to file a complaint.
“I understood that Mr. Campbell had filed a public information request looking for information regarding the review process,” explained Petropoulos. “At the time, I was reading on list serve other people’s comments about the evaluation. I called Mr. Campbell and asked him if he got all he wanted (on the review process) and he told me he was considering filing (an Open Meeting Law complaint). I told him I would call the attorney general’s office and find out the requirements of the law and save him the trouble of filing.
“I spoke to the AG’s office which, after I described how we conducted the evaluation, gave me their opinion that it should have been done in open meeting and all the information developed as part of the review released,” said Petropoulos. “So I contacted Mr. Campbell and told him about the AG’s decision and gave selectmen a chance to release the information. Campbell decided that he wanted to go ahead and file his complaint anyway. But my effort was to try to get him answers and avoid having a complaint filed.”
At the time the violation was to have occurred, board member Peter Cunningham was acting as chairman.
“As long as I’ve been on the board the review process has been that the chairman prepares the final evaluation and he would have each individual member of the board submit their comments and evaluations,” said Cunningham of the job review. “Basically, they’d fill out a form and it was up to the chairman to prepare a composite or summary of the evaluation. That’s the process that we’ve used for quite some time.
“This year, with the hyper-sensitivity over the Open Meeting Law, selectmen attended a seminar on the law and one of the themes there was serial communication between elected board members,” continued Cunningham. “Recently, Jack felt that communication of the members preparing the summaries constituted a serial communication so he complained to Campbell. (If a violation is found to have occurred) it is up to the board to remediate the problem. My understanding of corrective action is that the individual summaries would be attached to the minutes of the meeting (where they were discussed by the board) so that the public can see what each selectmen thought.”
Selectmen are scheduled to make a public response to the complaint at their meeting of Dec. 15.