City Council votes down ambulance fund transfer for litigation

WESTFIELD – On Jan. 7, the City Council voted 7 to 6 not to accept a positive recommendation from the finance committee to transfer $150,000 from the ambulance fund to pay for ongoing litigation.

Westfield City Councilor

Finance Chair Ralph J. Figy said the request is coming into the council as a means of paying the attorney’s fees for the lawsuits of three firefighters against the City of Westfield.  He said he confirmed with the city auditor that use of ambulance fund monies was appropriate because the firefighters were paid in part through the fund.

Figy went on to say that the three firefighters were terminated, and as a result 10 lawsuits were filed against the City of Westfield; three in Civil Service, three in the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, and four in Superior Court.

City Solicitor Shanna Reed, who spoke to the finance committee about the transfer, said the city has done as much as they can inhouse to keep costs down, but the plaintiffs do not want to settle and want to litigate “to the end,” according to Figy.  Outside counsel was sought, and the transfer will pay those fees.

At-large Councilor Kriten Mello asked if anyone had a running tally of what this particular situation is costing the city.  

Figy said no total amount was given, and they are not halfway through the process.

Calling it a “black hole,” Council President Brent B. Bean II said he was concerned about the lack of information on this matter from the Law Department.  He said the appointing authority of the Westfield Fire Commission also had a lack of information.  “I want to see more information from City Hall to the Fire Commission on this. Until that happens and they are brought into the fray on this, or if there is some reason (they can’t be), let us know.  I don’t see an end game,” he said.

Figy said as far as the end game, the city has tried to find an amicable solution, but the plaintiffs are refusing all offers.  They also held mediation. He said he hadn’t heard that the FIre Commission was not getting information either.

At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty said he agreed with Bean, and was going to vote against the transfer, which he said deserves public disclosure and public oversight. “We’re the one spending the money, we deserve full disclosure. So does the public, of how much it’s going to cost. Before we approve this, we need an executive session,” he said.

“We’d all like to have a lot of information, but when things are still being litigated, I’m not sure we can be given the information. It’s frustrating.  I think we have to wait until the end until anything comes out in the newspaper. I think we’d all like to have it but I don’t think we can have it,” said At-large Councilor James R. Adams.

Flaherty said in the Open Meeting Laws, litigation is one of the reasons to have an executive session. 

Figy said he asked the question of  Reed, who said since the council is not the hiring authority, they are not entitled to as much information as the fire commission “What I gave you is what we’ll get in an executive session,” he said.

Ward 4 Councilor Michael Burns said he was on the call at the finance committee, and heard the explanation. He said he was uncomfortable with the money coming from the ambulance fund.

Figy said he was also leery, which is why he asked the auditor who also reached out and confirmed the appropriateness of the use. “We’re going to have to pay the legal fees one way or the other.  I’d rather see it come out from the ambulance fund than the general fund. I’m going to encourage everyone to pass the transfer of funds,” he said.

After more discussion, Bean moved the question, which was voted down 7 to 6, with Councilors Dan Allie, Bean, John J. Beltrandi III, Burns, Flaherty, Mello, and Nicholas J. Morganelli Jr. voting no.

At-large Councilor Richard K. Sullivan Jr. made a motion to reconsider at the next meeting and request an executive session with the Law Department prior to that meeting, which passed unanimously.

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