Fireworks at Stockbridge Select Board over town lawyer

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STOCKBRIDGE — An effort to fire the town's long-time attorney set off verbal fireworks on Monday night and reopened two of the town's most heated and prolonged recent controversies.

Newly elected Selectman Don Chabon proposed replacing J. Raymond "Ray" Miyares with Lee attorney Jeremia Pollard — a plan audience members challenged as unwarranted and a violation of proper procedure.

And Chabon rankled veteran Selectman Stephen Shatz by sending an email urging a review of the circumstances surrounding the previous board's decision not to rehire Scott Muir as a town employee.

The email, which was sent early Monday to fellow board members and Town Administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden, was "argumentative," Shatz said, and a potential Open Meeting Law violation.

Shatz disputed Chabon's proposal for an executive session, emphasizing that discussions that could involve the possible rehiring of Muir must be conducted in open meetings.

He also described the email as "arguably, a violation" of an Open Meeting Law provision barring deliberations by Select Board members outside posted meetings.

Chabon responded that "to my knowledge, all communications from me have been within the boundaries of Open Meeting, and my requests for a meeting I believe are legitimate."

Muir, who had been the town's facilities manager and emergency services director, was terminated by the Select Board in March 2014, two months after being acquitted on criminal charges that he sexually assaulted five young female students.

A wrongful termination suit filed by Muir was dismissed in April in U.S. District Court in Springfield. Muir now faces a civil suit by a woman named in the criminal case.

Shatz, a retired attorney, alerted the other board members that if they are considering reinstating Muir, the town's insurer should be advised to determine possible coverage limits "for any claims made arising out of future acts by Mr. Muir."

In a separate statement, Shatz declared that he would not take part in any public or private Select Board discussions about "threatened litigation" by former Police Officer Heidi Teutsch to gain additional payments in regard to her settlement.

Teutsch was placed on administrative leave in November 2014 and resigned in May 2015 under a confidential settlement agreement with the town.

"No decision to pay more can be reached without town meeting approval and a Finance Committee recommendation," Shatz said. "There is no reason to pay Ms. Teutsch any more than she agreed to" in the binding settlement financed through a payout by the town's insurer and an appropriation by town voters for litigation expenses.

He also asserted that any discussion about rehiring Teutsch must be made in a public session with full disclosure of her past employment and no hiring decision should be made without the consent of Police Chief Darrell Fennelly. Sustained applause followed from the audience.

Select Board Chairman Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo also weighed in on the Teutsch issue.

"We've been discussing this in executive session," he said. "I've been trying to talk with the lawyer to see what can be put out and what can't be put out."

Under intense questioning from the audience, Cardillo said he couldn't comment on whether he had discussed Teutsch's potential rehiring with her attorney, although Shatz and audience members contended that he had already acknowledged the discussion.

Cardillo had set the stage for the often bitter 45-minute debate by referring to "a lot of talk on the streets about our town counsel, mainly in the negative sense. I think it's time we look at that and see what's out there."

For 20 years, Miyares of the law firm Miyares and Harrington in Wellesley has represented the town on legal issues.

On May 27, 2015, Miyares ruled that Cardillo, who had won a Select Board seat a week earlier, could not be reappointed as fire chief at the same time. The State Ethics Commission upheld Miyares' legal opinion. Some voters sharply disputed that legal opinion even though it was backed up by the state.

Cardillo, who was represented by Pollard, chose to await a new contract as chief, issued in July after he resigned from both posts, as required by state law, and run again in a special election. On Sept. 15, he defeated challenger Gary Johnston and joined the Select Board.

On Monday night, Cardillo read a letter from attorney Pollard of the Hannon and Lerner law firm in Lee offering to represent the town for $30,000 a year, described by Cardillo as a $10,000 annual savings for taxpayers.

"He's the type of lawyer who'll do what's right," Cardillo said of Pollard, "and if we're doing something wrong, he'll tell us and keep us out of trouble and I think that was some of the issues we were having."

Chabon said he had conferred with Pollard for 90 minutes about his experiences representing area towns and that he had "a nice long chat" with Miyares as well.

Several audience members suggested issuing a request for proposals to consider several firms, such as Boston-based Kopelman and Paige, which represents one out of three communities statewide, including 15 in Berkshire County such as Great Barrington, Lenox and Williamstown, and has just changed its name to KP/Law.

Chabon said he had considered several other firms, "but all the comments and recommendations pointed to Jeremia."

In an Eagle interview on Tuesday, Pollard said there were "two different board members that I spoke with. After speaking with both of them separately, I decided to go ahead and submit a proposal."

The attorney said he represents Lee, Otis, New Marlborough, Egremont, Hancock, Monterey, Richmond, Tyringham and Washington as well as Tolland in Hampden County and Warwick in Franklin County.

He also suggested that "as Select Boards change, sometimes who they retain as counsel changes."

Former Finance Committee Chairman Jean Rousseau praised Miyares and his firm as "faultless in their service, always prompt and always available. While it's certainly possible to change counsel it would be astonishing and precipitous to do it in this circumstance. There are uniquely timely issues before the town right now, and we should not jettison experienced public counsel in the midst of these issues."

Chabon acknowledged "the feeling in this audience tonight that they want to stay with Ray, but this has not been my experience." He then made his motion to terminate Miyares and replace him with Pollard, which was seconded by Cardillo for further discussion.

"I don't see how you can come to a decision without consensus, with a list of people with no names who aren't willing to stand up and say this is a good idea, and with no due process," said resident Virginia Schwartz. "I urge you to reconsider this, it would cause a tremendous amount of problems."

Following a long pause, Cardillo withdrew his second for Chabon's motion.

"We'll explore it better; you guys spoke, I ran as the voice of the people and I heard both sides," said Cardillo. "Yeah, I think we're going to have to look at some firms, look at what's out there and see where it takes us."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.


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