Wednesday October 10, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- At the request of Ward 1 Councilor Christine Yon, the City Council Tuesday night unanimously decided against voting on Yon's petition seeking a "no confidence vote" against City Solicitor Kathleen E. Degnan.

The 11-member council agreed to file the petition, in essence, refusing to take action on Yon's request.

Yon claimed Degnan "mismanaged" the city's defense of a lawsuit by the operator of a proposed methadone clinic.

Yon also said she thinks Degnan misrepresented Yon's concerns about the clinic to Spectrum Healthcare Systems, which she claimed prompted the Worcester-based company to seek further federal court action against the city.

But after nearly a two-hour debate, Yon was satisfied her concerns were publicly discussed and it was time to move beyond the controversy surrounding the Spectrum.

"I don't want to put my colleagues through this vote as it's not going to make a difference and it will hang them out [to dry]," she said.

Councilor at large Melissa Mazzeo was pleased the council avoided a vote, but felt the damage was still done.

"We have dragged [Degnan] through the mud and she had to hire an attorney," Mazzeo said. "I am disturbed by this [petition]."

Degnan was present, but didn't speak, at the council meeting. Great Barrington lawyer Alexandra Glover spoke on Degnan's behalf, defending her and the city's handling of the Spectrum lawsuit.

"At this point the case is over and you did well," Glover said.

She noted failure to settle would likely have had the city tied up in federal court for two years trying to win the case.

In mid-August, Bianchi announced a $100,000 settlement with Spectrum Healthcare Systems, payment for what he called the city's attempt to "illegally block" a building permit for Spectrum in 2011.

The agreement also allowed the company to establish a clinic at its originally proposed location on Summer Street. The facility, on the second floor of the Berkshire Nautilus building, is expected to open later this year, according to city officials. Initially, a settlement proposed in federal court on June 5 called for locating the clinic on Stoddard Avenue in Ward 1. Upon hearing that news from Bianchi in a private meeting on June 12, Yon returned to the mayor's office the next day, concerned about the clinic's impact on a residential neighborhood.

Methadone is commonly used to treat addiction to painkillers and opiates, such as heroin.

Councilor Yon brought her daughter, Nicole Yon, a nurse in Springfield, to the meeting, and asked Police Chief Michael J. Wynn to sit in.

Degnan wasn't at the meeting. Councilor Yon asked her daughter to share her observations of watching people entering the methadone clinic on her way to work. Nicole Yon recalled an instance where a man, still in his hospital gown or "johnny," walking to the clinic.

However, Yon cited how federal court documents filed by Spectrum in June misrepresented what the Yons said in the June 13 meeting, as Bianchi had yet to sign the proposed settlement for Stoddard Avenue.

If approved, a "no confidence" vote would have been symbolic, as only the mayor could begin the process of trying to remove Degnan for the solicitor's office.

Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi said he has no intention of asking Degnan to resign.

"Kathleen Degnan will be the city solicitor tomorrow, next week, next month, next year," Bianchi said.

Several city residents during citizen speak time also defended Degnan and were critical of Yon's petition.

Former Councilor Joseph C. Nichols called it a "modern day stoning," while Phyllis Smith felt the attempt at a "no confidence" vote had the "stench" of witch hunt.

Yon had asked Bianchi -- in private -- to ask for Degnan's resignation, in hopes of avoiding going public with concerns about the city solicitor's job performance.

"I never, ever, ever wanted to go after her or engage in a political witch hunt," Yon said.

Yon, the rest of the council, the city residents who spoke and the Bianchi administration all agreed it's time to move beyond the Spectrum case and focus on other issues facing Pittsfield.

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