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Rail trail abutter files Open Meeting Law complaint in Southampton

Michael Sacco of 116 Brickyard Road said in his complaint the board illegally met in executive session April 2 after invoking a section of the Open Meeting Law that allows negotiating strategies to be discussed in private.

Board Chairman David A. McDougall maintains that the board did nothing wrong.

Sacco filed a similar complaint against the board for entering executive sessions three times in 2012 to discuss buying property. The attorney general’s office agreed in December that board violated the law.

“I want to make sure that this doesn’t continue,” Sacco said this week.

The board entered the executive session April 2 to talk about purchasing a 4.25-mile stretch of railbed from Pioneer Valley Railroad to create a recreational trail on at least three miles of it. By state law, the town is not allowed to buy the land for more than its assessed value of $340,000, and voters approved the purchase in that amount.

The Open Meeting Law allows a board to enter executive session to consider purchasing property only “if the chair declares that an open meeting may have a detrimental effect on the negotiating position” of the board.

Sacco said it is widely known that the town cannot pay more than $340,000 for the land, so discussing it in public couldn’t adversely affect negotiations.

McDougall said the discussions need to be private because there are other aspects of the proposed sale that the two parties can negotiate about. For example, he said, the town could offer to buy the land but let the railroad company keep the right to sell space beneath the tracks to companies to run gas, fiber-optic cables or other utilities underground. “It could be a bargaining piece,” he said.

Sacco said he has not received a response to his complaint, although the town is obligated to review and respond to the complaint within 14 days. Thirty-five days have passed since Sacco’s complaint, dated April 24. A complainant can ask the attorney general’s office to investigate the complaint after 30 days if the town and complainant do not reach a resolution.

In his complaint, Sacco said he thinks the board should release the executive session minutes and that the attorney general’s office should “take remedial action” against the board if there is an infraction because it would be a second violation in two years.

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

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