Open Meeting Law complaint filed against Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee for controversial session held to discuss member’s reprimand

Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2014
AMHERST — An Amherst man has filed a complaint with the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee claiming members of the board violated the state’s Open Meeting Law when they met in defiance of then-chairman Lawrence O’Brien to discuss a controversial reprimand of committee member Amilcar Shabazz in July.

In the complaint, Thomas Flittie of Ridgecrest Road singles out member Trevor Baptiste, who has since been elected to replace O’Brien as chairman of the school board, for holding the meeting July 14, which Flittie says was not posted in Amherst, one of the four towns that make up the regional district.

State law requires that a meeting involving a quorum of the members of a government body be publicized at least 48 hours in advance of the session. Baptiste, who was vice chairman of the committee at the time, requested July 9 that the town clerks in all four towns post a notice of the meeting. All four did, but then were asked by O’Brien to remove the posting. O’Brien said that as chairman, he was the only one authorized to call a meeting and that he had no intention to do so. After consulting with the town’s legal counsel, Amherst Assistant Town Clerk Susan Audette attached a “canceled” label to the meeting’s listing on the town’s website. Town clerks in the other communities — Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury — left the posting up as Baptiste had submitted it.

Discussion of the complaint is on the agenda for the School Committee’s meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Amherst Regional High School library.

Baptiste said Monday that he has been attempting to contact Flittie to invite him to present his complaint directly to the board Tuesday. “That way we can address him right there and then send whatever we have to the AG,” he said. Baptiste contends the meeting was legal and said he explains his reasoning in a letter he will present to the board for consideration. “We’ll see whether it passes muster as our response,” he said. He declined to detail his defense of the meeting before the board discusses it.

The School Committee has 14 days from the date Flittie’s complaint was filed Aug. 12 to review it and send a copy to the state attorney general’s office along with an explanation of action to resolve the issue. A process follows that allows the person filing the complaint to appeal to the attorney general’s office if the individual is not satisfied.

Flittie, who is a self-employed contractor, did not return phone messages, but in his complaint, he said that Baptiste convened the meeting “with full knowledge that it had not been posted (in Amherst) which seems to indicate that the violation was intentional and premeditated.” He asks that any action taken at the meeting, and its minutes, be voided. He also requests that the record of its posting in the other towns be voided.

O’Brien said he is awaiting Baptiste’s response, but would welcome a definitive ruling by the attorney general’s office about who has the authority to call a meeting. He pointed out that although the School Committee handbook states it is the responsibility of the chairman, the Open Meeting Law does not explicitly address the issue. Still, he said, the town’s legal counsel advised the town clerk’s office to follow O’Brien’s directive as chairman.

“Is the way the town clerk’s office handled this posting the proper way to interpret it?” he asked. “None of us should take it personally, and I’m sure Trevor isn’t. Our committee has indicated we’re moving forward and I’m on board with that. But I think it’s important for the committee and future committees to have that determination made.”

The meeting in question, attended by five of the Regional School Committee’s nine members, was held in the Pelham library and drew at least 50 people as well as reporters from local newspapers, TV stations and websites.

On the agenda was the memo sent to members of the Schools Equity Task Force, which is examining racial issues in the schools, chastising Shabazz, its chairman, for allegedly referring to a white middle school student beaten by three black students as racist. That characterization was reported to have been made by Shabazz at one of the group’s meetings as he described the black students’ intention to attack the victim. School officials have released no details about the beating, but say that their investigation uncovered no evidence that the victim was racist. O’Brien has claimed that Shabazz’s words put the School Committee at legal risk.

The memo, signed by O’Brien, Amherst School Committee chairwoman Catherine Appy and Pelham School Committee chairman Darius Modestow, scolded Shabazz and warned all members of the task force to be cautious about what they say as members of a town body. The chairs of the three boards also sent a letter of apology to the white student’s parents.

Baptiste, however, took exception to that action without consent of the full board, which prompted him to call the July 14 meeting. Those who attended, Baptiste and Daniel Robb of Pelham, and Kathleen Traphagen, Richard Hood and Shabazz of Amherst, voted to disavow the process that led to the creation of the memo and stated their confidence in the work of Shabazz’s task force. Shabazz also apologized for bringing up the assault in the way that he did, but said his words were misunderstood. He denied calling the student a racist and said he apologized to the victim that such an assault could occur in Amherst. The meeting last 45 minutes during which some members of the audience voiced support for Shabazz. In addition to O’Brien, Appy did not attend the meeting, nor did Sarah Dolven of Leverett and Stephen Sullivan of Shutesbury.

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.