Saturday August 25, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Saying they want to "correct the record," three city councilors contend Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi’s administration misled the council about the purpose of a $100,000 budget expense that eventually was used as part of a lawsuit settlement to the op erator of a proposed meth adone clinic.

The payment, to Worcester-based Spectrum Healthcare Systems, was announced by Bianchi on Aug. 14, nearly two months after the council approved the city’s $133 million budget for fiscal 2013, which included the settlement funds.

Bianchi this week vehemently denied accusations by councilors Barry J. Clairmont, Jonathan N. Lothrop and John M. Krol Jr. that he misled them about the settlement, saying the three are looking for his "political Achilles’ heel."

Bianchi said the City Council knew the money had been set aside for Spectrum; Clairmont, Lothrop and Krol say that information was hidden from the council, accusations that appear to be supported by federal court transcripts.

The three councilors cite court documents, reviewed by The Eagle, that show that on June 5, City Solicitor Kathleen Degnan and Spectrum attorney Paul Holtzman told a U.S. District Court judge in Springfield that the two parties had reached an agreement in principle that included a monetary payment in the settlement. Last week, Bianchi said the payment was for what he called the city’s attempt to "illegally block" a building permit for Spectrum in 2011.

According to court documents, Degnan said the only thing "that might fall through" in the agreement was her ability to get funding from the City Council, which she and Bianchi requested at a council budget hearing four days later.

In that June 9 hearing, Lothrop asked if any specific settlements had been reached concerning a newly added $100,000 line item in the budget, and Degnan said no.

Earlier in the hearing, Coun cilor Christopher J. Connell asked Degnan -- with Bianchi sitting to the side -- if the $100,000 was for a specific case, and Degnan said it was for "litigation that’s been kicking around for a year."

Lothrop pressed the matter by asking, "So we don’t have settlements waiting to be paid at this time?"

"No, not at this time," Degnan said.

The City Council gave preliminary approval to the budget at the hearing and final approval at a council meeting on June 26.

Clairmont said the council "did not know" what the $100,000 was for on June 9. He said the council got "clarification on June 26, when no one really had time to think about what was going on."

Clairmont, Lothrop and Krol say they want to "correct the record" regarding the Spec trum case. The three dispute Bianchi’s statement to The Eagle on Aug. 14 that the money was included in the current budget "in case we needed it; I was hoping we wouldn’t use it."

"That, in my opinion, is materially misleading to the public to make that kind of statement when he knew the 100-grand was in there before anybody knew about this," Clairmont said. "He knew exactly what it was for before June 5 because Kathy Degnan was talking to the court about it."

Lothrop said the three city councilors’ assertions of being misled by the Bianchi administration aren’t politically or personally motivated.

"The truth needs to be told," Lothrop said. "At some point you have to understand that when you materially mislead the council, when you make false statements, you have the right to respond.

"When you’re going through a process and you know something’s not right, some people will just accept it and move on," he added. "But we thought this was important enough to sit down, start doing our research and compare it with what we’re being told. And I was shocked. I couldn’t believe the variation in what we were told and what we found."

Bianchi told The Eagle this week that the City Council knew what the $100,000 was for when it approved the fiscal 2013 budget on June 26. The mayor said the money went toward Spectrum’s legal fees, the cost of preliminary work on the clinic, and other expenses the company incurred before the settlement was reached.

Under the agreement an nounced by Bianchi on Aug. 14, Spectrum will be allowed to open the clinic at 42 Summer St., the Berkshire Nautilus building, as was originally planned in 2011. Pending approval from the city’s Building Department, the facility could be operational by the end of October, city officials have said.

The clinic’s location was a relief to home and business owners in the Morningside neighborhood who created a firestorm of opposition after hearing in mid-June that Spectrum was considering putting a clinic on private property on Stoddard Avenue.

Spectrum operates five meth adone clinics in Massachusetts. Methadone is commonly used to treat addiction to opiates such as heroin.

Bianchi said the accusations by Clairmont, Lothrop and Krol represent "totally a political agenda on their part."

Bianchi said the accusations by Clairmont, Lothrop and Krol represent "totally a political agenda on their part."

"I have had it with those three, who are consistently trying to undermine what we try to do here," the mayor said.

Two other city councilors reached this week by The Eagle said they had reason to believe the $100,000 discussed at the June 9 meeting was for Spectrum.

"I had a pretty good inkling what the money was for be cause I did my homework," Councilor Kevin J. Morandi said.

"I guessed the money was for that case and felt it was prudent we put it in the budget," Connell said. "Was it fully disclosed? No, but it couldn’t have been due to ongoing litigation."

During the June 9 budget hearing, Degnan said ongoing litigation kept her from discussing the $100,000 in the open meeting.

Clairmont, Krol and Loth rop, meanwhile, told The Eagle they thought she could have updated the council behind closed doors.

"When we ask her a question not appropriate for public airing, [the answer] should have been shared with us in executive session," Krol said.

Bianchi and Degnan say they weren’t trying to hide anything from the council.

"If they had gone into executive session, I would have answered any questions they asked," Degnan said. "I did not mislead the council."

"If they wanted to call for an executive session, they could have asked for one," Bianchi said. "We would have been very explicit."

Bianchi and Degnan said Lothrop rejected the idea of going into executive session during the meeting.

"If she [Degnan] had an swered my question, ‘Is a settlement awaiting funding?’ I would have requested an executive session, which requires a council majority for approval," Lothrop said.

Nearly three weeks later, in U.S. District Court in Spring field on June 26 -- before the council meeting that night -- Holtzman called the settlement agreement "far beyond complete ... actually signed by [counsel] for the city, laid on the mayor’s desk for his signature."

Nearly three weeks later, in U.S. District Court in Spring field on June 26 -- before the council meeting that night -- Holtzman called the settlement agreement "far beyond complete ... actually signed by [counsel] for the city, laid on the mayor’s desk for his signature."

Later in the proceeding, according to court documents, Degnan acknowledged that "the councilors didn’t know that the money was going to be used for this lawsuit."

"They’re probably not too happy about it now," she said in court.

Council President Kevin J. Sherman declined to comment on the verbal sparring between Clairmont, Lothrop, Krol and the mayor.

"I’m ready to move on," Sherman said. "We have other pressing issues in the city to address."

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.