Open Meeting Law complaint riles contentious Waubeeka issue on eve of election
WILLIAMSTOWN — A Luce Road resident has filed an Open Meeting Law complaint alleging that three of the five Planning Board members deliberated privately to craft an amendment concerning the proposed inn at Waubeeka Golf Links.
The complaint, filed Monday by David Leja, immediately drew fire from Sarah Gardner, one of the members named and who is in a contested bid for re-election to the Planning Board in Tuesday's municipal elections. Gardner and fellow board member Ann McCallum disputed Leja's complaint and characterized its filing a day before the election as politically motivated.
"Making an unsubstantiated and false accusation on the eve of an election is a tactic that I am sure voters in Williamstown will deplore," Gardner told The Eagle in an emailed statement.
Leja's complaint alleges that Gardner, McCallum and Elizabeth McGowan "met either in person or electronically, worked with a group of individuals, including an abutter attorney, to draft an amendment related to a proposed Waubeeka Golf Club inn project. They did so outside an open meeting."
The so-called Gardner Amendment, which seeks to limit the size of the inn by requiring a permanent conservation easement on the property, was a late addition to the Planning Board's May 4 meeting agenda. The amendment was adopted in a 3-2 vote, with Gardner, McCallum and McGowan voting in favor.
The measure is meant to amend a citizens petition to Town Meeting that seeks to change the zoning at Waubeeka Golf Links so its owner, Michael Deep, could build a country inn.
Supporters say the Gardner Amendment allows plenty of space for a small country inn while preserving open space. Opponents say it's restrictive to the point it would not allow Deep to build the inn he needs to save the struggling golf course operation.
Leja's complaint also claims a double standard between this Waubeeka inn proposal and an earlier Planning Board decision on a Williams College inn project. He alleges that McCallum, Gardner and McGowan voted to change the zoning for the college's new Williams Inn project. But the Gardner Amendment "places significant obstacles to the Waubeeka Inn project, which make it likely to fail at Town Meeting," Leja wrote.
His complaint notes that the three constitute a quorum of the five-member Planning Board, which Open Meeting Law prevents from meeting and deliberating outside of a posted and official meeting.
In Leja's complaint, he incorrectly states all three are Williams employees. While Gardner and McGowan are current employees, McCallum is a retired Williams professor.
But based on his statement, Leja wrote "there is clear bias toward the Waubeeka Inn project that is a competitor to the Spring Street inn project of their employer."
In the complaint, Leja called for the Planning Board to "rescind passage of the Gardner Amendment." Leja also called on the state Attorney General's Office, which fields and investigates Open Meeting Law complaints, to reprimand and fine the three if a violation is found to have taken place.
On Monday, Gardner said Leja's complaint was "absurd."
"That amendment was a revision of the bylaw drawn up by Town Manager Jason Hoch and town planner Andrew Groff, which has been on the town's public Planning Board website for weeks," she told The Eagle via email. "Ann McCallum and I worked to revise that draft together in response to the feedback from the previous meeting. We two sat down with [Williamstown Community Development Director] Andrew Groff the day before the most recent meeting and discussed final details of the amendment, which was then re-posted on the town's website. This is standard Planning Board procedure as Andrew will attest."
Groff confirmed Gardner's contention.
Gardner said members of the Planning Board received an email from Groff notifying them of the bylaw proposals on the Planning Board's website so they could read them in preparation for the May 4 meeting.
"All of this was done completely above board and does not constitute an Open Meeting Law violation," Gardner said. "It would be very sad if the losing side in a vote like this took to making under-handed allegations to try to undermine the democratic process."
McCallum shared Gardner's dismay. McCallum said conditions were imposed on the Williams Inn proposal, and that she has been retired from Williams College for several years.
"There is much in [Leja's complaint] that is wrong," McCallum said. "Sarah and I know the law, and we didn't consult with Liz McGowan beforehand. We are very scrupulous and above board."
McCallum said she believes Leja's complaint was most likely politically motivated, and that the Gardner Amendment, in her opinion, increases the chances the Waubeeka citizens petition will pass at town meeting.
The Planning Board's May 4 vote was a detour from a plan set forth at an April 28 meeting that directed Williamstown's Community Development Department staff to write two differing amendments acknowledging the golf course owner's concession of 67.5 acres of undeveloped land into a permanent conservation restriction.
The Gardner Amendment imposed additional restrictions that Deep's team has said make the inn project unworkable. The amendment drew condemnation from the chairwoman of the Select Board and the two dissenting members of the Planning Board.
In an email sent later on Monday to Eagle management, Gardner wrote that the "Planning Board amendment does not kill the Waubeeka hotel plans. It allows a hotel the size of the Orchards (50,000 square feet) plus expanded golf course buildings plus a banquet facility for 200, something appropriate to the Five Corners Historic District, and in one of the four highest rated scenic vistas in the state.
"All five members of the Planning Board wish to see the golf course stay alive and wish to provide the economic means to ensure this can happen," Gardner wrote. "The only differences are how big members of the board think the hotel should be."
After expressing dissatisfaction with the Planning Board's May 4 vote to others, Leja said he filed the complaint at the urging of others.
"The orchestration of the 'Gardner Amendment' is problematic to many people in town because it has the appearance of a backroom deal," Leja said in a prepared statement.
Leja continued, "The process by which it was created and introduced supports the theory that the three prepared it and had a plan for passing it well in advance of the May 4 meeting which presents the possibility of an Open Meeting Law violation."
"The amendment and its process has created outrage and shock among a lot of people in town over what happened at the Planning Board meeting on May 4, including people who have served on various town boards past and present," he said.
He said the integrity of the Planning Board and the town government could be damaged by such perceptions.
"In the case of the Gardner Amendment, there is a definite need for an Open Meeting Law complaint to clear the air of impropriety that hangs over it and to remind everyone involved of the importance of keeping discussions of this magnitude in a public forum," Leja said.
The Planning Board has 14 days to respond to the complaint. Members are scheduled to discuss it at their next meeting on May 16. If Leja is dissatisfied with their official response, it will be sent to the state Attorney General's Office for further inquiry.
Gardner has previously been accused of running afoul of the Open Meeting Law as a member of the Planning Board.
In 2005, the Berkshire District Attorney's office ruled that four members of the town Planning Board, including Gardner, violated the state's Open Meeting Law when they wrote and sent a press release against a proposed water main extension shortly before the idea was turned down at a special town meeting. The ruling came as a result of an inquiry by the North Adams Transcript.
In his ruling, District Attorney David Capeless "strongly admonished the board members not to conduct public business in private" and encouraged them to attend open meeting law training sessions "so they may better serve the interests of the community."
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