Executive session in Great Barrington raises eyebrows, legal questions


GREAT BARRINGTON >> Did the Great Barrington Select Board violate Massachusetts' open meeting law by going into executive session over rate hikes for the Housatonic Water Works company on Monday? That's what local journalist Eileen Mooney, who produces the email and print publication The Newsletter, thinks.

"What most disturbs me is that these negotiations are being done in secret, with no reports to the public," Mooney told The Eagle on Wednesday.

But Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin disagrees with the suggestion the board is doing anything wrong. Tabakin pointed to an opinion from the town's lawyer David Doneski in which he asserted the town was well within its rights to enter the closed meeting due to the negotiations being part of a "quasi-judicial" proceeding, therefore meeting the litigation standard.

"We were following the directions of town counsel," Tabakin said.

The session was called to negotiate requested rate hikes for the Housatonic Water Works, the company that supplies water to the village of Housatonic and parts of Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. The Select Board announced they were entering executive session because of "pending litigation," a justification that did not sit well with Mooney or other members of local media.

"You could use that as an excuse for anything," The Berkshire Record's Terry Cowgill pointed out.

But the Select Board stuck to their guns on their right to close the meeting. They said the opinion by Doneski was sufficient to justify the meeting. Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton told the media that the board would call Doneski and confirm his opinion.

"I am concerned about this, but town counsel did confirm this," Selectman Steve Bannon said.

The Eagle asked what action the board would take if town counsel reversed Doneski's decision. Bannon said he would leave the session immediately in that case.

Stanton returned to the meeting room 10 minutes later to inform the media that town counsel confirmed the legality of the executive session.

Mooney disagreed. She said that Greg Corbo, a lawyer with Kopelman and Paige, had told the public during an open meeting workshop in June that "pending litigation" was not enough of a reason for executive session.

Mooney quoted a handout from Corbo in The Newsletter: "To justify an executive session to discuss litigation, the AG has stated that the mere possibility of litigation is not sufficient. Litigation must be pending or clearly and imminently threatened or otherwise demonstrably likely."

Mooney doesn't believe that likelihood has been demonstrated, so she is pursuing the matter with the state's Attorney General.

"No litigation is pending, threatened or filed," she said.


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