Proposal to Limit BOS' Power Hits Legal Wall
Seekonk selectmen request a legal opinion whether a measure that would prevent them from serving on other town boards in most cases can be placed on a town meeting agenda.
Whether a proposal to prohibit selectmen from serving on other boards in most cases can be placed on a June town meeting agenda could depend on a lawyer's interpretation of the laws of Seekonk and Massachusetts.
The selectmen voted 3-2 Wednesday to seek legal advice on whether a petition featuring more than 100 signatures forced them to put the measure before town meeting voters.
Selectman Bill Rice, with the help of activists, collected the signatures to get the item on the agenda for the special town meeting (which will take place on the same night as the annual town meeting). Town Administrator Pam Nolan said more than 100 signatures on the petition were certified by the town clerk, exceeding the threshold required by the town charter. Selectmen Gary Sagar and Bob McLintock disagreed with her.
The charter states a petition featuring the signatures of "at least 100 registered voters may secure" the inclusion of a measure "for any duly scheduled special town meeting."
Only 10 signatures are needed to get an item on the agenda for an annual town meeting, but the deadline has passed for placing measures on that agenda.
McLintock and Sagar, who are opposed to the measure, said the use of the word "may" rather than "shall" in the charter means it would be up to the selectmen to determine whether the item should be placed on the agenda. However, Selectman Dave Parker noted that the Massachusetts law uses the word "shall," and he said state law supersedes town law.
McLintock said the issue should go to an attorney, angering board Chair Francis Cavaco, who said the town was spending too much money on legal advice.
"We can't be going to legal all the time … legal for this, legal for that; the dollar runs up," Cavaco said. "Legal don't care. It's billable hours."
Despite this statement, Cavaco voted with Sagar and McLintock to seek legal advice.
Rice said quietly, although it was picked up his microphone, "This board is going to get sued." He said loudly, "This is totally legal and I expect this board to respect the legality of our town charter."
Nelson Almeida, who helped Rice collect signatures, told Attleboro-Seekonk Patch that the law was clearly on the side of the petitioners.
"It's state law that the petition needs to be accepted," Almeida said. "The people run the town, not the selectmen. The people need to vote if selectmen should be able to serve on multiple boards, not the selectmen."
The proposal to limit selectmen's power stems from public opposition to last year's appointments of Cavaco and McLintock to the Board of Health. Parker proposed last week that an item be placed on the town meeting agenda, but a final vote was not taken. Rice then started his petition, which called for a measure similar to Parker's proposal.
An exception to the prohibition, under Rice's measure, would be if a board did not have a quorum. A selectman could be appointed to serve until a replacement were found.
Rice said last week that allowing selectmen to serve on other boards was "an abuse of power." McLintock said this week that selectmen were placed on the BOH to settle the "constant battle" between its members and selectmen, and to "impress on [BOH members] what the issues were" regarding the board's purpose of serving the people.
He said limiting the selectmen's ability to appoint its members to a board would be a big mistake.
"I really don't think you can strip away the authority of the Board of Selectmen," McLintock said. "They are elected by all of the electorate in this town. And if this passes, there is just going to be nothing for them to do because they won't have the authority to do it."
The date of the town meeting was officially set for June 11. It had been originally scheduled for June 25, but was adjusted at the request of the school district to give earlier notice for teachers who might be laid off.
The start time of the meeting was adjusted again to 7 p.m. Selectmen had voted last week to move it to 6 p.m., but Sagar asked for another vote to be taken because he had changed his mind. McLintock was the lone vote against the re-adjustment.
Shortly after the town meeting begins, it will be adjourned so that the special session can take place. The lone item on the special agenda will be the senior center measure, and the proposal to limit selectmen's power could be added. After the special meeting concludes, the regular session will restart.
Also at the meeting on Wednesday, selectmen voted to appoint Robert Costa Jr. to fill a vacancy on the BOH. Almeida, who impressed many political observers with his surprising third-place finish in last month's selectmen election, was voted onto the Parks and Recreation Committee. He had applied for the BOH appointment as well.