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North Adams city councilor files Open Meeting Law complaint about fellow councilor

Name plates of city council members (copy)

Desk name plates of nine North Adams City Council members on a table in the council chambers at City Hall. Councilor Marie Harpin filed an Open Meeting Law complaint with the state this month, alleging that an email Councilor Keith Bona sent to all members about the tax rate was a violation of Open Meeting Law.

NORTH ADAMS — Though the City Council recently set property tax rates, a complaint related to the issue remains.

Councilor Marie Harpin filed an Open Meeting Law complaint with the state last week, alleging that an email Councilor Keith Bona sent to all councilors about the tax rate was a violation of the law.

Between two November council meetings about property taxes, Bona forwarded all councilors an email from a property developer who is against a high commercial property tax rate. Among other points, the developer argued in his email that high rates lead to nonprofits, which can be exempt from property taxes, to buy property instead of renting it, taking property off city tax rolls.

Bona forwarded the message to all councilors. “I wanted to pass along,” he wrote. “He brings up a good example.” Bona pointed to a nonprofit renting a space from the developer in the city. “Tenants can only afford so much ... absorbing taxes is part of their expense,” he said, adding that a nonprofit may find it cheaper to buy the building and not pay property tax rather than absorb property tax in its rent from a landlord.

He added examples of a few nonprofits that have bought their buildings.

A few days later, Harpin filed an Open Meeting Law complaint about the email, arguing it was deliberating on a council issue outside a public meeting.

“Councilor Bona added a paragraph of deliberation to reinforce the developer’s opinion and status in the community,” her complaint says. Bona has served on the council for years, she wrote.

“As a highly seasoned public official and Councilor, he knows the Open Meeting Law and the requirement that public bodies be open,” she wrote. Because of his experience, the violation was intentional, she said.

Harpin declined to comment on the complaint she filed.

The law says communication between a quorum of members of a public body — a majority in the case of the city council — on issues relevant to the group has to happen at public meetings, according a page about the law on the state’s website.

“A public body member may lawfully email a quorum of the public body only to discuss scheduling a meeting, distribute a meeting agenda, or to distribute reports or documents to be discussed at a meeting,” the law says, “provided that no opinion of a member of the public body is expressed.”

Bona disagrees with Harpin’s complaint. “There was no back and forth between any councilors. Councilors in the past, including myself, have forwarded information prior to meetings,” he said.

He is frustrated that Harpin didn’t talk to him before filing the complaint. “You don’t have to run to the state to file something,” he said. “I’d be happy to check with the state myself and say, ‘Hey, is this deliberation?’”

He thinks the complaint was politically motivated. “If it was a comment that supported her side, she probably wouldn’t have filed it,” he said.

In discussions at recent council meetings, Bona wanted to reduce the gap between commercial and residential property taxes, while Harpin did not. The council voted narrowly to set the residential property tax rate at $17.67 per $1,000 of assessed value and the commercial rate at $37.59.

A special City Council meeting called to discuss a response to the complaint was scheduled for Monday and then cancelled. Only Bona needs to reply to the complaint, City Council President Lisa Blackmer said, citing information she got from the city solicitor. He is drafting his reply.

Over the past year and a half, the state has issued decisions on three other Open Meeting Law complaints about the City Council or its committees, according to a state database. All three were filed by Jennifer Barbeau before she was sworn in as a councilor.

Seven members did violate the Open Meeting Law last year when they didn’t sign an Open Meeting Law certification form in the legally allowed time. That was resolved informally without a fine. In the case of the two other complaints against council committees for other alleged issues, the state ruled there were no law violations.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6272.

Reporter

Greta Jochem, a Report for America Corps member, joined the Eagle in 2021. Previously, she was a reporter at the Daily Hampshire Gazette. She is also a member of the investigations team.

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