A Superior Court Judge has fined the City of Westfield’s Fire Commission $1,000 for willfully violating the state’s open meetings law. Judge Constance M. Sweeney handed down the ruling Monday after having nullified the termination of three firefighters last August.
At issue in the case was a public hearing held on August 6, 2018, where the Fire Commission went into executive session without revealing their true purpose, and without giving legally required notice. Once behind closed doors, the commission decided to dismiss Captain Rebecca Boutin, Firefighter Kyle Miltimore, and Firefighter David Kennedy, who incidentally had accused interim Fire Chief Patrick Egloff of sexual harassment.
Boutin, Miltimore, and Kennedy filed suit to block their dismissals based on the commission’s failure to provide them notice as required under the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, G.L. c. 30A, §23. On August 29, 2018, Judge Sweeney issued a temporary restraining order nullifying the dismissals and ordering an evidentiary hearing on September 18, 2018.
In her ruling this week Judge Sweeney concluded the Commission willfully violated the open meetings law, and in particular called to task the commission’s chairperson, Albert J. Masciadrelli. Quoting from the decision:
- Based on the evidence presented at the hearings, this court finds that the defendants willfully violated the Open Meeting Law and did not act in good faith when complying with the advice of their legal counsel.
- In short, the defendants knew that they were violating the Open Meeting Law when they voted to go into executive session.
- The fact that the City’s lawyers advised them to do so does not excuse them from their knowing and intentional violation of the Open Meeting Law.
- Albert J. Masciadrelli was the sole witness to testify on behalf of the defendants at the second hearing.
- At the time of his testimony, he had served on the commission for almost 20 years.
- Masciadrelli was the chairperson of the commission when he and the two other members voted to go into executive session to discuss the reputations, characters and mental health of the plaintiff-employees and to discuss potential discipline or dismissal of the plaintiff employees.
- The defendants, acting in knowing violation of Chapter 30A, §21 (a)(1), did not afford the plaintiff-employees the right to be present at the executive session, or to have their counsel attend.
- Masciadrelli testified that for several months prior to the meeting, he knew that there was some type of investigation into the Fire Department.
- Even thought he was chair of the commission that by charter was charged with the oversight of the department, he nonetheless testified that he didn’t know any details of an internal investigation of the plaintiff-employees, including the identity of the targets of the investigation.
- In fact, he claims that he didn’t even know who hired the investigator. The investigator was a private lawyer who was evidently retained by the city solicitor to conduct an investigation of the plaintiff-employees on behalf of the commission.
- Masciadrelli admitted that despite citing litigation as a basis for convening the closed meeting, there was not any litigation pending or imminently expected.
- He also acknowledged that he knew that the Open Meeting Law provided an employee the right to be present when their reputation, character or mental health was being discussed.
- Remarkably, he insisted that he did not know that the reputations, characters and mental health of the plaintiff-employees were going to be discussed, despite having provided advanced notice of the executive session to the City Clerk for posting and despite convening and presiding over the closed meeting, the sole purpose of which was to discuss the reputations, characters and mental health of the plaintiff-employees.
- Masciadrelli’s testimony was not credible.
- The minutes from the executive session reveal that the commissioners met with the city solicitor, her assistant and the City’s personnel director, all whom discussed a report authored by the investigator.
- The city solicitor summarized the investigator’s conclusions, which included claims that attacked the plaintiff-employees’ reputations and characters and brought into question their mental health.
- Following the city solicitor’s presentation, the commissioners unanimously voted to issue notices of termination to the plaintiff-employees.
- As a result, the Deputy Fire Chief immediately placed the plaintiff-employees on administration leave pending a termination hearing.
- In his testimony, Mr. Masciadrelli said that it was clear to him that the city solicitor was trying to keep the subject matter of the meeting “secret.”
- The subject matter that the officials were attempting to keep secret from the plaintiff-employees was the investigator’s onslaught of conclusory and extremely damaging claims against the plaintiff-employees that directly attacked their characters, their reputations and their mental health.
- It is clear from the evidence that the commissioners knew that they were violating the Open Meeting Law when they voted to go into executive session by excluding the plaintiff-employees, who had a right to be present with or without counsel.
- The commissioner’s intentional violation of the law is not excused by the city solicitor’s advice that the meeting should be held in executive session.
- Her obvious attempt to circumvent the Open Meeting Law does not immunize the commissioners from their equally willful violation of the law.
The Commission now has 21 days to pay the fine.
Here is a copy of the ruling: Superior Court Decision