Council Not Optimistic About ARA Legal Battle
Several councilors say it is unfair they have no say whether the ARA appeals the recent legal defeat, but the city could be stuck with the bill.
City Solicitor Robert Mangiaratti faced tough questions and comments Monday night from skeptical city councilors about the latest Attleboro Redevelopment Authority legal battle.
No councilor spoke in favor of appealing a Bristol County Superior Court judge's decision that the ARA reinstate two fired employees and provide them with back pay, including benefits and interest. Some councilors said the ARA should not continue the with expensive conflict.
"Somebody sang a song about 'know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,'" Councilor Mark Cooper said. "It's time to fold … pay off what we have out there, take the loss, cut our losses and make it happen."
[Watch the attached videos to see some of the councilors' comments]
Regardless of how the councilors feel, they don't have a say in whether an appeal is filed. Only the ARA board can make that decision, a fact that frustrated several councilors. They noted the ARA has no cash (although it owns properties) and the city could be asked to pay the final bill (estimated by the former employees' attorney at $600,000 and counting) because it has bailed out the troubled agency on previous occasions.
Councilor Jay DiLisio likened the situation to the council having a seat at the table, but "we're just not allowed to eat dinner and we're going to pay the bill."
Councilor Jeremy Denlea said, "I think it's obvious to say [the bill] comes right to us. It would come right out of the taxpayers' pockets."
If it reached a point where the legal battle has ended and the ARA owes a substantial amount of money, it could be difficult to get the council to approve the use of city money for the payout.
"I just do not see myself ever saying 'yes' to giving additional dollars, taxpayers' dollars, to anything moving forward, as far as the ARA goes," Councilor Sara-Lynn Reynolds said.
Jonathan Weydt, one of two councilors to vote against the most recent ARA bailout in May, said, "No more money for ARA, that should be the motto here." He added that had the agency "been blown up years ago," its properties could have been sold and there would be tax-paying businesses on the sites by this time.
Mangiaratti said if an appeal were filed, he would cap his fee at $5,000 (which comes from the city), which he said would be a substantially smaller amount than the actual cost. His reason, Mangiaratti said, was because he did not want fear of legal costs to "get in the way" of the ARA board's decision on whether to file appeal. He added, "Part of it is I feel a personal commitment to the arguments that I've made and that much of the work has already been done."
The city solicitor addressed the council for nearly an hour as he reviewed the history of the case in detail. The commission and the judge had determined that while the ARA board had said lack of funding was the reason for firing the employees, the actions were actually taken as a final step in Mayor Kevin Dumas' plan to get rid of ARA Executive Director Michael Milanoski. Mangiaratti said that the financial crisis was real, and in a situation like that, a government body "doesn't have to spend every last dollar on salary."
When asked about whether the appellate court would rule in the ARA's favor when a commission and a judge had sided with the former employees, Mangiaratti said he could not make a guarantee.
"Can I predict what a judge is going to do? No," Mangiaratti said. "All I can do is say, 'here is what I think they should consider,' and then your opinion is as good as mine."
He added, "Believe me, no one is more frustrated with the circumstance than I am. And judging from the council's comments, everybody's frustrated … the decision makers have to make a decision, putting aside our frustration and our emotion and say what makes sense, what is the best thing for the city."
It was nearly a full house in the audience. But the people in attendance were notified before the special meeting began that they would be unable to share their opinions. Council President Frank Cook said no public comment would be allowed.
The ARA board is scheduled to meet Thursday.