GROTON -- Responding to a complaint filed by a resident, the Board of Selectmen decided it was not qualified to judge whether one of its own had violated the state's Open Meeting Law and remanded the issue to the attorney general's office seeking advice.
The 4-0 vote came at a meeting May 12, prior to that evening's third session of town meeting, following discussion by members Anna Eliot, Joshua Degen, Stuart Schulman and Chairman Peter Cunningham.
Fellow member Jack Petropoulos did not attend the meeting.
In particular, the complaint was filed with the Town Clerk by Groton Line editor Art Campbell against Cunningham. He accused the selectman of violating the OML when he called around to fellow selectmen polling them on whether to waive the owners of Blood Farm from a $4,500 fee for rebuilding a slaughterhouse that had been consumed by fire last year.
Denying the charge, Cunningham iterated at the meeting the explanation he had already given in a letter to a local newspaper, to wit; that he was just sounding out fellow selectmen on the idea to see if it had any legs.
"A thought occurred to me that a tangible way of showing some support for the Blood Farm would be a waiver of the building fees," said Cunningham in an interview prior to the May 12 meeting. "It's not a huge amount of money so it certainly might have been a nice little thing to do. 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."
The waiver, in any case, was not an action within the power of the selectmen to grant so that discussing it outside a regularly posted public meeting would not have made any difference.
Cunningham concluded his explanation to selectmen by noting that a similar situation had taken place in Athol where another slaughterhouse destroyed by fire was considered for a waiver.
The chairman concluded the defense of his actions by reminding his colleagues that in 24 years of serving in public office including School Committee and Board of Selectmen, he had never had any complaints about his behavior.
Board member Joshua Degen did not dispute Cunningham's version of events, only that at the time he refused to discuss the issue when the chairman called him on the telephone. He felt that it was something that ought to be talked about in a public meeting.
"The intention was very good on your behalf but I did not want to talk about it," said Degen.
"This is the biggest to do over nothing we've had in weeks," observed Schulman. "I personally don't see how it could have been (a violation)."
Schulman thought it had been too early in the process for bringing such an issue to the fore and that it would not have been "wise" to bring it to the attention of the public.
"My feeling is that I did not violate the open meeting law," concluded Cunningham. "It certainly was not my intent."
Cunningham's fellow selectmen largely felt the same, feeling unqualified to interpret the section of the law dealing with multiple contacts among board members when not in an open meeting.
However, compelled by the complaint to follow certain steps including coming to a conclusion and suggesting "remedial" action on any offender within 14 days of the filing, they voted to notify the attorney general's office of their uncertainty and invited the AG to meet with them to explain the nuances of the law.
Also at the May 12 meeting, selectmen reached a tentative settlement with the partners with whom the town had signed a purchase and sales agreement covering the former Tarbell School.
Prospective tenant Country Kids daycare moved to another location in town and the purchaser of the building had plans to sell the property to a third party who might or might not have used the building for community purposes as was originally intended by the board.
Selectmen, therefore, had moved to void the agreement and try to find another buyer.
But a vote to void the agreement was postponed last week in order to allow the buyers to represent themselves before the board and avoid if possible any disagreement with the move.
Consequently, selectmen met with Michael Rasmussen, one of the partners in the purchase deal, who informed them that he had no qualm about having the agreement voided. He asked only that the town repay $3,000 that was spent having the building inspected for lead paint, asbestos and other items that would need to be addressed in the renovation stage.
"We would love to come to an amicable agreement," concluded Rasmussen.
Although Degen balked at the idea, saying that such costs were simply "the cost of doing business" when purchasing a home, fellow selectmen felt the request was reasonable particularly as Rasmussen also offered to hand over the reports to the town for use in selling the building down the road.
Lowering the rebate amount to $2,200, board members with the exception of Degen, voted to approve the give-back.
A second, unanimous vote, terminated the agreement with the return of a $5,000 deposit made by the partners but contingent upon acceptance of the $2,200 give-back and that the partners withdraw from the purchase deal without prejudice thus negating possible legal action.
Personally in agreement with the deal, Rasmussen said he could not give final approval to it until consulting with his partner who was out of the country.
Finally, selectmen agreed to sign a letter of support to the Old Groton Meeting House Advisory Committee, which is seeking to have the First Parish Meeting House on Main Street listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The current 260-year-old First Parish Meeting House was built in 1754 on the site of an earlier structure, and after significant alterations in 1839, doubled as a place of worship and municipal governance until construction of Town Hall in 1856.