'Charter objection' at Pittsfield City Council sparks heated debate
PITTSFIELD -- They'll have to agree to disagree.
That seemed to be the consensus after a lengthy debate this week over the proper use of the "charter objection" provision in Pittsfield's new city charter.
On one side, City Solicitor Kathleen Degnan, who was asked to provide an opinion on its parameters; and on the other side, City Councilor at large Barry Clairmont, who was first to use the option on Feb. 11 to delay a vote by the council.
"I'm troubled by your opinion, to be honest with you," Clairmont told the solicitor Tuesday before raising a number of issues.
Clairmont, at times sounding like a trial attorney with a hostile witness, pressed his case that Degnan had been correct when she said Feb. 11 that his use of the objection to halt debate was correct and wrong when she later reversed herself in a written opinion to the council.
After a more thorough review than was possible during a quick recess in the February meeting, she concluded that the provision does not apply to all votes of the council, Degnan said. In the future, the solicitor said, she would want to take more time to review each charter objection "on a case by case basis."
Degnan said the new charter -- adopted by voters in November -- indicates that such objections could only be raised to "measures," which she said would be something typically acted on by both the mayor and the council. On Feb. 11, the issue being debated was a request to change one of the council's own rules of procedure, which was voted on the next meeting instead.
Degnan added that the charter wording itself had to take precedence since there was no case law to consult on the question, including from other municipalities with similar charter provisions. She insisted Pittsfield's charter wording itself is what limits the type of issue over which an objection can be legally raised.
"Do you think you have narrowed the scope of this?" asked Clairmont, later adding, "I think the intent should be ‘any vote' [of the council]."
The councilor also argued that a special permit, such as for a Dunkin' Donuts drive-thru operation, which was voted on last year by the council, would not meet the solicitor's definition for allowing a charter objection.
Degnan reiterated that she could not offer an opinion "in a vacuum," only on a specific set of facts, any of which could alter the situation.
Clairmont added at one point, "It feels the solicitor's opinion is an attempt to amend the charter."
Council President Melissa Mazzeo twice asked Clair-
mont to "try to wrap it up," and once commented, "This is not an inquisition. She [Degnan] is offering an opinion."
"I think we'll have to agree to disagree," Degnan told Clairmont.
Her opinion was requested by Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell, who said he hoped the council could establish guidelines for use of the objection going forward. The council eventually voted 8 to 3 to accept the report from Degnan, with Clairmont and councilors John Krol and Jonathan Lothrop voting against, but that action appeared to leave the question open to further interpretation in the future.
The provision was inserted in the charter by the study group that drafted it last year, and it is intended to help "stop a runaway train," according to charter study group member Michael J. McCarthy. It was added as a provision in the old charter calling for a second council vote at a second meeting on many issues was deleted.
A general consensus seemed to emerge among councilors that, if the solicitor could not or declined to issue an opinion on the spot at a future meeting, the council president would determine whether a charter objection was properly raised. However, that might not preclude a legal or other challenge following the meeting.
Lothrop, who said "this is an important conversation to have," as the council might be setting a precedent, agreed with Clairmont's broader interpretation of the charter's meaning. He said he came to that conclusion after the Feb. 11 meeting.
To reach Jim Therrien:
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_therrien
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.