Critics say commission dismissal vote violated state law

SOUTHWICK — The Select Board has received at least six complaints for violations of the state Open Meeting Law as supporters of three former town commissioners continue to express anger at their dismissal.

“How sad, frustrating and downright dirty this all seems,” town resident Kimberly Lamarche said at the board’s Oct. 18 meeting. “I grew up in this town, and I am very saddened by your conduct.”

She was one of about half a dozen town residents who spoke about the dismissals at the start of this week’s Select Board meeting. Maryssa Cook-Obregon of the Agricultural Commission and Conservation Commission, Dennis Clark of the Agricultural Commission, and Chris Pratt, chair of the Conservation Commission, were all left off the list of reappointments voted during the Select Board meeting Sept. 27. Rose Hanna and Kevin Solek were appointed to one-year terms on the Conservation Commission and Bob Mucha was appointed to a one-year term on the Agricultural Commission in their places.

The former commissioners have said they believe the dismissals were politically motivated, stemming from positions they took opposing the Select Board on topics such as the Carvana automobile sales processing facility proposed last summer, and the use of historical preservation funds to repair the Town Hall roof.

Their defenders, some of whom called for Select Board members to resign earlier this month, now say the Select Board violated both state law and its own policies.

Michelle Pratt, Chris’ wife, said the procedures adopted by the Select Board itself require vacancies on town boards to be advertised, to attract a wide range of applicants, and for the board to conduct public interviews before selecting a new commissioner.

“It never happened,” she said. “We went back through your minutes, and it never happened.”

She also said state law specifies three-year terms for members of conservation commissions, and the town bylaw that set up the Agricultural Commission also calls for three-year terms. Based on their dates of appointment, Cook-Obregon’s terms should not have ended before late 2022, and Clark’s term was not set to expire until 2023, she said. Chris Pratt’s three-year term was slated to end this year, she noted.

Michelle Pratt said state law does allow appointed commissioners to be removed for cause, but requires that the Select Board notify the commissioner in advance of the vote, and hold an advertised public hearing on the dismissal. Neither of those happened, she said, and both the commissioners themselves and their colleagues found out about the vote only after it had taken place.

The Sept. 27 vote on commission reappointments passed 2-0, with Russell Fox and Douglas Moglin in favor. Joseph Deedy, the chair of the Select Board, was not present at the meeting. Fox, who acted as chair that evening, later explained the dismissals by saying that town residents have long asked for the Select Board to place some new faces on town boards, rather than continually reappointing the same people, and that the new commissioners would bring a change in direction to the town’s agricultural and conservation policy.

On Oct. 18, Cook-Obregon said both she and the remaining commission members are still wondering what that new direction will be, three weeks later.

“How long will it take to get these answers? What is the direction?” she asked. “You’re affecting public bodies of the town of Southwick. They belong to us [residents]. Are you taking our interests into account? Because from my vantage point, right now, I can’t see it.”

Town resident Cynthia Marshall proposed that the town convert several of its appointed commissions, including Agricultural, Conservation, Economic Development and Historical, to elected bodies.

Chief Administrative Officer Karl Stinehart reported that the town has received six complaints about the vote under the state’s Open Meeting Law. The board assigned Fox to lead its response to the complaints.

Moglin, paging through the complaints, said “some of these are factually incorrect,” and that he would submit a full response to Stinehart in writing.

Solek, one of the newly appointed commissioners, asked that residents give him a chance to prove himself. He noted that he grew up on a farm on Granville Road and served on the Agricultural Commission — alongside Cook-Obregon — for two years, in addition to volunteering for the annual tractor rally and community garden.

“I’m here for transparency,” he said. “If anyone ever has any questions, I’m available. I’m here to serve you.”


Master Plan panel grows

Also at the meeting, the Select Board unanimously approved a proposal by Planning Board Chair Michael Doherty to increase the size of the town’s Master Plan Advisory Committee. The committee includes representatives from several town boards, as well as a handful of residents-at-large appointed by the Planning Board.

As originally constituted, the advisory committee had one seat for a shared representative from the Agriculture and Conservation commissions. Cook-Obregon, who was a member of both commissions at the time, was chosen for that seat. With her dismissal from both boards, there is no longer a single person who can fill that role.

The advisory committee will now grow to 17 members, with the two commissions each receiving separate seats, and the addition of the Planning Board chair as an ex-officio member, to avoid tie votes.

Moglin pointed out that Doherty joining the advisory board, which already has two Planning Board members, would place a quorum of the Planning Board on the Master Plan panel. Doherty said he would make sure that all Master Plan meetings are also posted as Planning Board meetings, to avoid running afoul of the Open Meeting Law.

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