At its meeting scheduled for tomorrow afternoon at its offices in Warren, the Bristol County Water Authority is expected to revisit its vote last month to rehire the same legal counsel it has retained for many years.
Whether the board votes again on legal counsel at its 5:15 pm meeting on Jan. 9 will depend on advice it receives from the attorney general’s office, said BCWA board chairman Allan Klepper of Barrington.
The issue of taking a new vote surfaced again because of criticism that the line item on the award of the contract for legal services at the Dec. 20 meeting was not posted properly. A recording of that meeting also indicates that the issue was discussed at a Dec. 18 meeting that was not posted at all.
“I will make a presentation to the board after I talk to the [Rhode Island] attorney general,” said Klepper on Monday. “I don’t know if we’ll vote again or not. It will be up to the board.”
The board voted 5-2 at the Dec. 20 meeting to retain the law firm of Cameron and Mittleman, specifically partner Sandra Mack, who has been the water authority’s legal counsel for about 20 years.
The vote ended a search for legal counsel that had gotten responses to an RFP from seven law firms, five of whom were interviewed at that meeting. Board member Robert Allio of Barrington asked each of them the exact same questions, said Klepper.
The process used by the board for the legal search is the same process used by the board to hire Pamela Marchand, the BCWA’s executive director.
Two longtime Barrington critics of the BCWA, Gary Morse and Jeff Black, both questioned whether the vote came at a meeting where the issue of hiring new legal counsel was properly posted, said Klepper.
The item is listed on tomorrow night's agenda under the heading "Award of Contract – Legal Services." It is the same listing used on agendas for several previous meetings where the board discussed legal services and the process it would use to solicit a law firm to represent the BCWA, Klepper said.
During the agency's Jan. 3 meeting at Warren Town Hall, Morse and Black maintained that the Dec. 20 vote and the Dec. 18 meeting were illegally held and should be held again.
"Every month for the last six months, you've had a notice in your monthly meeting notices 'Legal RFP,' and that's it — but you went ahead with a vote on [Dec. 20] on the same meeting notice, which is a violation of the Open Meetings law," Morse said.
Klepper replied that the board had received advice from another town's attorneys that the meeting and vote were legal.
"To the extent that we're aware, it was a legally advertised meeting," Klepper said. "If there's a problem with that, then the attorney general would have to tell us that — if the board wants to take another action at the next meeting, then the board will take some other action [but] right now, there's no plan to do that."
Black told the board that he "hoped a corner had been turned on all this Open Meetings stuff — I'm really disappointed to see what happened on Dec. 18 and Dec. 20."
When Klepper explained that the Dec. 18 meeting was a "closed session" to interview applicants for the legal bid and thus not advertised, Black responded: "Well, that's illegal — don't you know that?"
"If that's wrong, we'll revisit it," Klepper said.
Morse also told the board last week that he feels the BCWA has been working without a strategic plan since 1993, as required under the state law that established the water district, and blamed the problem on the board's legal counsel.
"That plan actually is late by almost 20 years, and the question is: You have an attorney who is supposed to be guiding you through the legal phases of the Bristol County Water Supply Act — a lot of the problems you've gone through are a direct result of not working under a plan, and that it was just shoot-from-the-hip for most of the years," Morse explained. "This was legal advice that you needed to make a plan consistent with the requirements of the act — it almost appears that you've rewarded your legal counsel for incompetence."
The retention of Mack and her law firm as legal counsel also did not sit well with some board members.
Barrington board member Kevin Fitta said he preferred a change in legal counsel because it is good for an organization to sometime make chanes. He also said Mack has been a “lightning rod” for criticism of the BCWA.
Fitta also said Cameron and Mittleman’s rates were 25 to 45 percent higher than other qualified firms. But the firm has a lower cap than other applicants, said Klepper.