2007-02-15 / Front Page

Harsch calls action by Town Council illegal

By Dotti Farrington

Three Town Councilors Monday said they had reached a preliminary consensus in a Feb. 5 closed-door session to discuss the selection of a new town solicitor. They said they were tentatively prepared to select Peter Ruggiero of Warwick and associates for most town work and current Assistant Town Solicitor Carolyn Mannis to continue criminal prosecutions for the town.

Town Solicitor J. William W. Harsch told the councilors that such talks behind closed doors were illegal. He said they were in jeopardy of being called to task by any resident who might wish to pursue such action by filing a complaint with the state attorney general.

Harsch spoke at length about his previous rulings on the state Open Meetings Act and the right of the public to know about government, and the benefits to both the public and government when there is full openness. He said he had continuing concerns about the lack of need to hold some sessions in secret, especially about the town public works barn.

The councilors, who described their roles in the Feb. 5 session, were Vice President Julio DiGiando, William Kelly, and Michael Schnack. Council President David Long was absent Monday, and no one spoke about his role in the questioned session.

"Learning curves" Councilor Barbara Szepatowski, who was not at the Feb. 5 session, said she was confused. She asked her colleagues what happened to the agreement at the open meeting the previous week. She reminded the other councilors that they agreed to recall some candidates for second interviews, and to interview Harsch since he had been unable to keep his appointment for an interview because of a bout with a seasonal illness. She also recalled that she and the others talked about not wanting "to pay for learning curves" of lawyers not familiar with town matters.

Szepatowski complained that the decision should have been made with all councilors present. "I know I am not one of the boys," she said, "but I do expect us to do as we said and to have all the information before we decide."

The three councilmen acknowledged there had been a plan as she described. They said they did not take any vote Feb. 5 and each described his being willing to resume the plan. Then each said he favored Ruggiero, who has been a labor negotiator for the town.

Some councilors said they had concerns about candidates who might not be able to attend usual council meetings on the second and fourth Mondays of each month. Szepatowski said she was reluctant to hire a firm that was unfamiliar with Jamestown. She said the town should not have to go through a "learning curve" as new solicitors learned about local issues and concerns. Others agreed about wanting to avoid a learning curve as much as possible.

The three councilmen seemed to agree that a major area for legal guidance involved land uses in terms of planning and zoning actions. Szepatowski said she saw the major need as that of the council needing legal guidance "about what we can do and what we can't do."

Each councilman said that the need to name a solicitor arose because Associate Solicitor Lauriston Parks asked to do all the town's legal work after he was not re-appointed town solicitor in North Kingstown. Harsch, who was the town's lead solicitor, had agreed to end his association with Parks a year ahead of schedule. Schnack said he appreciated the work Harsch and Parks had done, "but I want a firm not an individual." DiGiando said Parks asked for the change and Harsch "did too." Kelly also said both Parks and Harsch sought the change.

Kelly noted that Harsch could have an interview if he chose. Harsch said he wanted one. He emphasized Monday that he was willing to compete for a new arrangement, but that he had not sought an end to partnership with the town or with Parks. "I want to make it clear that (Parks) sought the change. I was satisfied with the arrangement. He is competent. I was puzzled by what happened."

Harsch also said that work as Jamestown's solicitor "has been gratifying. I understand the need for change. It is unfortunate about the extent of change." He suggested the councilors might be making a choice "that reduces the quality of service and creates learning curves."

As part of his response about wanting an interview, Harsch said the apparent preference for the Ruggiero team might not be the best decision for avoiding learning curves. He spoke well of Ruggiero generally, but said Ruggiero's associates had limited land-use experience and would have to go through "learning curves" if hired by Jamestown.

Councilor Schnack said Harsch's criticism of any other attorney was "distasteful." Harsch defended his right to speak on the matter. The two dueled as DiGiando more than once called, "Gentlemen, cease and desist." When they did stop, after only a few more jabs, DiGiando said, "This is uncomfortable to do." He then assigned the town administrator to schedule further interviews.

Interviews

The council had interviewed seven individual lawyers or groups of lawyers who want to take over the consortium of attorneys serving as Jamestown town solicitors for the last four years.

The councilors wanted to conduct the interviews in executive session, but several months ago in a legal advisory on open meetings and public access , Harsch ruled that contractors, including professionals in several categories, were not town employees and therefore not entitled to closed meetings as provided for town personnel.

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