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Attorney General rules Southampton Select Board violated Open Meeting Law

— The state attorney general’s office ruled that the Board of Selectmen repeatedly violated the Open Meeting Law earlier this year when it negotiated to acquire property behind closed doors on three occasions.

The ruling, a result of a complaint from zoning board member Michael Sacco, orders board members to attend a training on the Open Meeting Law.

“I’m satisfied with the outcome and what the disposition of the matter was, but I’m concerned about the apparent lack of a clear, fundamental understanding of the Open Meeting Law,” Sacco said in a telephone interview Friday. “It puts into question what else could be going on behind closed doors.”

Sacco complained to the state June 1 that the Select Board violated the law on April 10 by meeting in executive session to discuss acquiring property on Brickyard Road with individuals representing the property seller.

The four-page ruling, dated Dec. 17, states that a violation occurred April 10, 2012, but also noted that the board’s Feb. 21, 2012, and July 26, 2011, executive sessions also violated the law for the same reasons.

The three executive sessions were held because the town was considering acquiring part of the property at 178 Brickyard Road to preserve as open space. The board invited the seller’s court-appointed receiver, Cheryl A. Parker, to the July 26, 2011, meeting and Southampton attorney William J. O’Grady, Parker’s representative, to discuss the purchase at the two 2012 meetings.

The Select Board claimed the executive sessions were permissible under “Purpose 6” of the Open Meeting Law, which allows boards to meet in private to discuss purchasing or leasing property if meeting in public would compromise the board’s ability to negotiate, such as if they indicated how much the town was willing to pay for a parcel.

“When representatives of the seller of the real property, such as the seller’s attorney, are present, Purpose 6 is defeated because there is no need to enter executive session to establish a confidential negotiating position,” the ruling states. “The Board should have discussed the Brickyard Road Receivership in open session, or in executive session without Attorney O’Grady or Attorney Parker present.”

In his May 24 response to Sacco’s original complaint, Select Board Chairman Michael Phelan said that the seller’s attorney was present “solely to assist the town in evaluating the potential purchase and value of the property so that the town could prepare to negotiate to acquire the property.”

But the minutes show that during the two private meetings held in 2012, the board and O’Grady came to the agreement that the town would acquire 22 acres to preserve as open space in exchange for forgiving close to $50,000 in liens on the property, then owned by Michael Wojtowitz, and the board voted to have O’Grady draw up a purchase and sales agreement.

“We order immediate and future compliance with the Open Meeting Law and caution that future similar violations may be considered evidence of intent to violate the law,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Sclarsic in the determination.

In a July 10 response to the attorney general’s office, Phelan stated that the town had scheduled an Open Meeting Law training session for Sept. 11 and asked that the matter be closed.

Sclarsic noted that Sacco informed the state that only one board member attended the training, so all members who did not attend are ordered to attend a training or train online within 90 days.

Sacco said he hopes the training will help, but he does not know if the violation was the result of “ignorance of arrogance.”

“There are members on the board who have served for as long as I’ve been in town, which is 10 years, so it’s a little troubling if they don’t understand that this is a clear violation,” he said. “I believe wholeheartedly in the transparency in government. We need more, not less.”

Calls to Phelan were not returned Friday.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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