WESTFORD -- The Board of Selectmen violated the Open Meeting Law in sending emails related to the secret settlement agreement awarded to outgoing Fire Chief Richard Rochon last summer, lawyers in the office of the state Attorney General have determined.
In a finding this week, the AG determined selectmen violated the law in three separate email chains sent to the full body of the board -- constituting illegal deliberations held outside of the public eye. The office also notes "concern" on another exchange between officials related to revisions for a retirement card for the chief.
In March, The Sun filed an Open Meeting Law complaint with the state after requesting emails related to Rochon's departure. After a months-long investigation, The Sun found through public records requests selectmen voted to give Rochon an additional $25,000 on his way out the door following 37 years of service. That payment was never previously disclosed to the public.
The Sun then requested on March 13 the town release all emails exchanged on the subject, to which Town Manager Jodi Ross responded there were more than 1,500 emails available that would cost thousands of dollars to access. Suspecting the large number of emails indicated a case of serial deliberations amongst a majority of members on the select-board, The Sun filed a complaint with the attorney general on April 10.
Assistant Attorney General Hanne Rush found several selectmen violated the law.
"We find the board violated the Open Meeting Law by sending electronic communications discussing public business within its jurisdiction to a quorum of its member," Rush wrote. "...Determining which tasks are merely 'administrative' can be challenging and email communication... -however innocent - easily can create the appearance of secret deliberations."
Rush said in reviewing thousands of pages of emails released by the town, amidst a time of several executive session meetings related to Rochon's departure in July 2013, selectmen emailed back and forth outside of Town Hall about the separation agreement. Rochon left his post following an external review of the Westford Fire Department in 2013. Firefighters also took a vote of no confidence in their leader earlier that year.
Former Chairman Kelly Ross, who acted as head of the board during this time, said Wednesday the board would have to be "more careful" in the near future after reviewing the state's comments
"I don't think we did anything egregious," he added in reaction to the findings.
On July 12, 2013, Ross emailed the entire board with a draft version of the separation agreement. Selectman Ross, of no relation to the town manager, was tracking changes at the time and invited Selectmen Scott Hazelton and current Chairman Andrea Peraner-Sweet to call him with questions. Hazelton then responded to the entire board by email asking, "is it normal practice to bury personell (sic) records this completely?" Manager Ross then responded, copying the entire board, something presumably requested by Rochon's attorney at the time, would not be agreed to by town officials. Selectmen then took a vote in a closed-door executive session to grant the chief a payout related to sick and vacation pay time as well as longevity along with $25,000.
The Sun has yet to review the emails referred to in the attorney general's letter but Manager Ross said Wednesday she would work as soon as possible to release them.
In reaction to the letter, she said it was not her "intention to violate the law."
"People do make mistakes and if we erred on one day..., I'm sorry," she said.
Rush wrote in her findings then, on July 25, 2013, Manager Ross emailed the entire board notifying them of Rochon's upcoming retirement party. She was looking to coordinate the signing of a card for him. Rush says Chairman Ross responded to the entire board he would sign the card and then in an email chain on July 29, had some additional comments and revisions for the card.
"I should have called an open meeting for that," Selectman Ross told The Sun regarding that email exchange.
Selectman Ross notes his emails to selectmen related to the separation agreement were in response to documentation sent over by Rochon's attorney during negotiations. Ross said he was trying to "help out the board" by comparing the changes ahead of their next executive session meeting and was working to be as efficient as possible.
"Lesson learned," he said.
Current Selectmen Chairman Peraner-Sweet declined comment when reached Wednesday morning until she had an opportunity to review the Attorney General's findings.
For more on this story read Thursday's Sun or click on http://www.lowellsun.com
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