GROTON -- Concerned that a topic raised off-line by one its members may have been in violation of the state's open meeting law, the Board of Selectmen decided to go public with it by placing it on their meeting agenda for May 12.
Prompting the action was a move by board chairman Peter Cunningham to sound out his colleagues about waiving construction fees totaling some $4,500 for the owners of Blood Farm who are planning to rebuild a slaughterhouse destroyed by fire last year.
Although the board may express support for waiving construction fees, it would be up to the town manager to approve such action as spelled out in the town's Charter.
According to a letter to the editor sent to the Groton Herald, Cunningham took it upon himself to seek the reduction in fees.
"This was solely my idea and in no way related to any request or suggestion from Blood Farm and was in fact initiated without their knowledge," wrote Cunningham. "My rationale in considering this idea was that the Blood Farm fire was a significant loss for the community as evidenced by the outpouring of support and words of encouragement to the family to reconstruct the business. As we all know, this is a business which has been in Groton for five generations dating back to the early 1800s, and that legacy, in my view, differentiates it from other enterprises in town.
"Immediately after the fire the decision to rebuild was somewhat up in the air," continued Cunningham. "But the family was sincerely moved by this outpouring of support. It is also true that each and every selectmen had expressed at one point doing whatever the town could do to help the family in rebuilding and the thought occurred to me that a building fee waiver would be a tangible example of support."
Cunningham then contacted his fellow board members to find out if they would support a waiver.
"It's not a huge amount of money so it certainly might have been a nice little thing to do," wrote Cunningham. "In my mind, what I was doing was floating a trial balloon to selectmen to see what they thought of the idea; who thought it was a good idea and who didn't and that's where it ended."
Not unfriendly to the idea, some balked, however, concerned that the manner in which Cunningham was going about seeking support might be in violation of the open meeting law.
Among those who voiced concern was Joshua Degen.
"It may or may not be a violation of the open meeting law," explained Degen. "It needs more analysis. But I did not wish to participate in a conversation any further because I didn't know (if it was legal) and wanted to take it up in a public meeting."
In his defense, Cunningham wrote that his contacting selectmen on the question was not unusual. That in fact, board members frequently talked about issues among themselves.
"Selectmen do indeed speak with one another from time to time on a host of issues before the town," wrote Cunningham. "Decisions are ultimately discussed in open session, but if it is a crime to float ideas in this manner, then we are all guilty as charged."
But Degen offered, "If I have an issue I want to talk about, I'll speak with individual selectmen but I won't discuss it with any but one other selectman to see if I'm way off base. If I were discussing something with one selectman, I would never hang up with them and call another. That said, we do speak to each other, sure. We talk about how town meeting went last night or a fire on Common Street or a baseball game, but we're not talking or deliberating about anything within the board's jurisdiction. I think what Peter was saying was 'Look, this is not our decision. It's not the selectmen's right to waive a permit fee.' Therefore, he thought it was okay to talk about it. That's my opinion."
According to a guide issued by the district attorney's office, "The purpose of the open meeting law is to eliminate much of the secrecy surrounding the deliberations and decisions on which public policy is based. It accomplishes this purpose by requiring open discussion of governmental action at public meetings. The requirements of the open meeting law grow out of the idea that the democratic process depends on the public having knowledge about the considerations underlying governmental action, for without that knowledge, people are unable to judge the merits of action taken by their representatives. The overriding intent of the open meeting law is therefore to foster and indeed require open discussion of governmental action at public meetings."
"I did not want to implicate or involve or cause any embarrassment to the Blood Farm," said Cunningham, admitting that he had asked fellow selectmen not to speak to anyone about the subject. "It was just a trial balloon at that point. I did not want it to get out there and go public yet. This all happened about a month ago and there was no controversy until only a week or a week and a half ago."
With a complaint of violation of the open meeting law filed with the Town Clerk, the whole issue is now out in the open and will be addressed at the selectmen's meeting on May 12.
"I should have known better," concluded Cunningham. "But the thing I feel bad about is any embarrassment or implication of the Blood Farm. I don't want in any way to embarrass them. That's the piece I feel bad about.
"The other piece is that I understand the politics that's going on," said Cunningham, "and I would remind my fellow selectmen, if they want to get into a strict interpretation of the open meeting law, that there have been many other issues that we have talked about that could pose a violation."