This post was updated at 11:45 a.m., May 16, 2016 to reflect new action by the Planning Board. The headline previously read: "Complaint alleges Planning Board majority favors Williams hotel over Deep's; "indicates" unspecified Open Meeting Act violations; selectmen back Deep language 4-1; FinCom takes no action"
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- A town resident on May 9 filed a complaint with the town alleging a “possible Open Meeting Law violation” by three members of the Planning Board. On May 16, the Planning Board voted, 5-0, to send a letter to the complainant, David Legaj, saying no violation occurred.
The Open Meeting Act complaint also alleges bias by the board in favor of Williams College, and seeks the overturning of a May 4 board vote that went against developer Michael Deep. The three members each said they were unaware of any violations and that they follow the law.
There were these additional developments on May 9:
- Selectmen voted 4-1 to reject the advice of the Planning Board on Michael Deep's proposed 120 "unit" hotel zoning change at Waubeeka Golf Links. Selectmen agreed that the hotel building sought by Deep should not have its square-footage size restricted. The Planning Board recommends a limit of 60,000 square feet, roughly between the size of the Williams Inn and The Orchards. Voters must resolve the conflicting advice at the May 17 town meeting or table the matter. (LISTEN TO AUDIO OF THE MEETING) | READ TRANSCRIPT OF MEETING df
- The Finance Committee voted unanimously not to take any position on the Waubeeka proposal after hearing economic arguments for it from Deep's attorney, Stanley Parese.
The Open Meeting Act complaint dated as of Sunday and signed by David M. Leja, who gave his address as 141 Luce Road, Williamstown, was received by the town on Monday. Under the state Open Meeting Act, a board that is the subject of such a complaint has 14 days to respond. Messages left on a voice-mail machine at the phone number listed on Leja's complaint were not immediately answered. The Berkshire Eagle reported that Leja said he filed the complaint at the urging of others because the "the orchestration of the 'Gardner amendment' is problematic to many people in town because it has the appearance of a backroom deal." He reportedly said he hoped his complaint would "clear the air."
READ / VIEW COPY OF LEJA COMPLAINT
Town Manager Jason Hoch acknowledged receipt of the complaint and said he personally "have not seen any electronic correspondence on which I have also been copied that had more than two members of the Planning Board." Amy Jeschawitz, the board’s chair, did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
Leja’s complaint consists of an approximately 300-word narrative beginning: “I believe an intentional violation of the Open Meeting Law occurred.” It goes on to allege that Planning Board members Sarah Gardner, Ann McCallum and Elizabeth McGowan met at unspecified times, “in person or electronically.” The complaint provides narrative assertions about outside-of-meeting activities, but cites no specific date or time of any open-meeting violation other than the period between the board's April 28 and May 4 meetings.
It alleges the unspecified alleged meetings involving "working with a group of individuals including an abutter attorney" in order to co-author a proposal – adopted 3-2 by the board on May 4 – to recommend a zoning change for a 50,000-60,000-foot hotel at the Waubeeka Golf Links. The complaint seeks to have that vote rescinded, if Open Meeting Act violations took place.
Sarah Gardner and Ann McCallum, who called GreylockNews.com with information about the complaint, said no violations occurred; that they are aware of the law, which generally forbids outside-of-meeting collaborations by a majority of a public body. In the case of the Planning Board, that would mean two members could meet, but not three.
Gardner called the open-meeting violation "completely absurd." She said that while she and McCallum have met outside of meetings, McGowan was not involved in such meetings.
McGowan also told GreylockNews.com she was not personally aware of any open-meeting law violations and has tried to avoid being present at public events where a quorum of the board might inadvertently be present. She said the three versions of the amendments to the Citizen's Petition were all posted to the Planning Board's Google Docs page on the Town Hall website by the afternoon of May 2, more than 48 hours before the meeting, "so there was plenty of time for everyone to read and digest the three proposals."
Leja’s complaint, although containing one factual error, generally alleges that the trio have showed bias against a proposal by Waubeeka owner Michael Deep, who is seeking zoning changes to build a hotel of up to 120 rooms "units" (potentially multi-room suites) on up to 10 acres of the 207-acre golf course. At the same time, Leja’s complaint says they favored a proposal by Williams College for a zoning change to build a 60-100-inn hotel at the end of Spring Street. Leja terms the Waubeeka proposal “a competitor” to the Williams bid.
Both are slated for discussion and possible voting at the May 17 town meeting.
The factual error in Leja’s complaint: It states Gardner, McCallum and McGowan are all employed by Williams College. Gardner and McGowan both teach at the school; McCallum has taught there in the past. Leja’s complaint also notes that the same three members voted to recommend voters approve the Williams-sought zoning change. However, it did not mention the vote was unanimous, 5-0 and was taken after the board invoked a state-sanctioned “rule of necessity” because of employment conflicts involving three of its five members – Gardner, McGowan and member Chris Winters, who also works at the college.
Updated at 10:48 p.m., 05-09-16, to include comment from Town Manager Jason Hocht
Updated at 8:04 a.m. on 05-10-16, to clarify that the Deep proposal is for 120 lodging "units" not rooms, and to include Leja comments reported by The Berkshire Eagle.
Updated at 8:25 a.m. to note votes by Selectmen and Finance Committee.