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Town Clerk Files Open Meeting Law Complaint Against Council

The challenge follows an examination by the council into travel expenses.

Braintree Town Hall.
Braintree Town Hall.
The creation of a travel expense policy for the Town Council, Clerk of the Council and Town Clerk was interrupted Tuesday by an Open Meeting Law challenge filed by Town Clerk Joe Powers.

Two council subcommittees have been working on travel and meeting expense guidelines after an audit showed an increase in travel-related expenses for personnel under the council's purview over the last several years, combined with a lack of oversight.

The Committee on Ordinance & Rules was set to finalize the policy Tuesday evening, ahead of a full council meeting where councilors were expected to vote on the measure. 

But the committee tabled its discussion on the advice of Town Solicitor Carolyn Murray, and the full council did not take up the policy either. Instead, President Charles Kokoros scheduled a council meeting for Monday, Dec. 9 to address the Open Meeting Law complaint.

In his complaint, Powers challenged the specificity of meeting notices for Committee on Rules & Ordinance and Committee on Ways & Means meetings on Nov. 19 and Nov 25, according to an email Murray sent to Kokoros Tuesday afternoon.

The meeting notices – required to be posted ahead of time under Massachusetts Open Meeting Law – listed a discussion on "Financial Audit Meeting Expenses" but did not indicate the adoption of a policy related to those expenses.

Murray suggested continuing the measure because the same notice language was used in the agendas for both of Tuesday's meetings. 

"I have not had an opportunity to review all of the minutes, meeting notices or agendas at issue, so I have no position on the merits of the complaint itself at this time," Murray said in the email.

However, if councilors had recommended a policy and then adopted it in the full council Tuesday evening knowing that a complaint existed, the council may have risked "committing an intentional violation of the Open Meeting Law..."

The council is required by law to send a copy of the complaint and any remedial action to the Attorney General within 14 business days of receiving the complaint, Murray said.

Speaking only for himself ahead of the Monday meeting on the complaint, Kokoros said he did not believe the council violated the law.

The conflict arose after Councilor-at-Large Leland Dingee, before he retires at the end of the year, vowed to work with his colleagues to implement increased oversight of travel expenses.

Auditor Eric Kinsherf looked at the expenses for personnel under the council – it appoints both the Clerk of the Council and Town Clerk – and recommended corrective actions such as requiring pre-approval during the budget period for all travel and meeting expenses, sign-offs by the council president and detailed summaries of trips, including their total cost and benefit to the town.

During the committee meetings, Dingee and Ways & Means Chair Paul "Dan" Clifford argued that they were not singling out the Town Clerk, even though expenses in his office rose from $1,304 in 2012 to $4,166 in 2013.

Expenses also increased under the council budget, which includes the Clerk of the Council. In fiscal year 2009, the first full year the council existed, members spent $1,555 on travel and related items. That went up to $2,995 in 2013.

Prior to Tuesday's meetings, Powers prepared a binder including more than 200 pages of travel and meeting documentation, highlighting the clerk association certifications he has received and the grants and scholarships that have helped pay for the courses and trips.

Powers pointed out that the $10,433.99 he has charged the town for related expenses since his hiring in September 2009 has accounted for less than 1 percent of his budget during that time. He has also averaged less than two travel days per month.

However, a trip to Scotland in September and October to earn the Master Municipal Clerk designation from the International Institute of Municipal Clerks, coming in at a total cost to the town of $2,773, rankled some council members.

It was Powers' most expensive trip since being hired. The next most expensive was a visit to Atlantic City last May for an annual conference of the international group. That cost $1,990, according to the clerk's records.

Powers was re-appointed to his position for a three-year term in July 2012 by a 4-3 vote of the council after some councilors brought up unspecified personnel concerns in the clerk's office.

He declined to comment Tuesday night on the Open Meeting Law complaint.

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