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North Adams Committee Tweaking Solicitor Ordinance
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
03:55AM / Wednesday, July 08, 2020
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The General Government Committee is considering side-stepping a thorny problem about access to the city solicitor by rewriting an ordinance to more clearly spell out lines of communication. 
 
Chairwoman Lisa Blackmer said the wording in the ordinance had raised questions as to whether any single councilor has "unfettered access to the city solicitor." 
 
"I think, we thought that was not particularly good," she said. "So I'd like to take a shot at rewriting that ordinance."
 
The council had objected back in 2018 when the city switched over to KP Law as city solicitor, limiting council members' access to the Boston law firm. The council members had been used to contacting former City Solicitor John B. DeRosa, who'd been kept on retainer for 35 years before stepping down in March 2018.
 
The administration had argued that it was in part a matter of funding — since KP billed more directly than did the former solicitor — and that much of the information the council needed could be provided in house. Councilors, however, were not sanguine with leaving the administration in control of what access was appropriate.
 
Last year, the council had $5,000 put in its budget to cover legal costs but has been stymied in its attempts to find a process for contacting the solicitor that they all can agree on. Most councilors were opposed to the idea of any one of them requesting a legal opinion on their own — and spending taxpayer dollars in the process. There was some discussion over the past year of giving committee chairs or the council president authority, or having the entire council vote on any request. 
 
No solution had been found at the end of the term when the new City Council was inaugurated in January and the discussion was put aside when the pandemic arrived in March. 
 
Tuesday night's General Government meeting was the first since February, when the committee had broached the subject of changing the ordinance and decided to send it back to council. Since then, the council has postponed a number of subjects until later this summer when it could begin meeting in person.
 
This time, the committee decided to let Blackmer make some changes to the ordinance and review it next week.  
 
At issue is the wording within one paragraph and how it may pertain to councilor access. 
 
"The City Solicitor shall, whenever so required by the mayor, the City Council or any officer of the City government who may need the same in the discharge of official duty, furnish them or any of them with his legal opinion, upon any subject touching the duties of their respective offices," the ordinance reads. 
 
At the time, Councilor Jason LaForest had pointed to paragraph and believed that councilors would fall under "any officer" or "any of them."
 
"I know that there are the people that are believing this gives them the right that any of them, meaning that any city councilor, not the City Council as a whole," Blackmer said. 
 
Committee member Jessica Sweeney, however, said on Monday that she didn't read it that way. 
 
"After rehearing the ordinance, it doesn't seem to me that that is giving any individual counselor a power to do that," she said. "Our job is also to do our own due diligence and to be using the city solicitor as a last resort."
 
One example, Sweeney said, is the Visual Artists Rights Act that the committee has been waiting to hear on it before it takes up the so-called pillar art again. The art, done by a school program and a local arts group under Veterans Memorial Bridge, was painted over a few years ago by Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to restore a sound installation under the bridge. 
 
The committee had the pillar art on the agenda but had not yet received a legal opinion on whether VARA came into play. Blackmer was not sure why it had been delayed but suspected the law firm had been busy with its clients municipal concerns from the pandemic. 
 
"This is a tricky area that none of us have enough expertise in," Sweeney said. "This is a good opportunity to go to the city solicitor for an opinion, with approval from City Council. I don't necessarily see the ordinance as giving that power to us individually so I don't even know if we have to
change anything."
 
Blackmer thought it was worth clarifying the wording as it related to the council. 
 
"I do think that that would be the best. Because then we've also kind of answered the question and, hopefully, we will keep revisiting it," she said.  "Because I think what's going to happen is people are going to come back and say no, any one of them."
 
Committee member Wayne Wilkinson was in support as long as it provides that the City Council as a whole makes the decision to expend its legal budget. There had been talk of a form or some written process but he didn't think that necessary if the majority council was making the decision. 
 
"Obviously the ordinance needs to be updated," he said "I particularly like the road of being able to bring something to council where the whole council agrees on it and then it goes to the city solicitor because I don't think the mayor shouldn't be in that line of action."
 
Councilor Marie T. Harpin, who was listening in on the Zoom meeting, asked what would happen if the solicitor was needed quickly and how a format of going through the council would work in that case. She referred to Monday's meeting of the Public Safety Committee, which an attorney from KP Law attended, as something that seemed to happen fast. 
 
Blackmer didn't think that was necessarily a council request since there were other aspects of the city administration involved in the dangerous dog public hearing, particularly the animal control officer and building inspector.
 
"There's a certain amount of liability to the city with a dangerous dog. I think that's pretty common that you would have ... the city solicitor there," she said. "They were there representing the city, and explaining the liability and the legal issues."
 
Harpin, however, thought special circumstances should be considered.
 
The committee voted to have Blackmer "tweak" the ordinance language and set another meeting for Tuesday, July 14, at 6 p.m. to review it. 
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