Monday, September 15, 2014

Foxboro Selectmen Seek More Compatible Counsel

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, September 15, 2014.
By Bill Gouveia

            So it seems the Foxboro Board of Selectmen will be looking for a new law firm to represent them and the town very soon.  Apparently dissatisfied with their current legal firm, they will no doubt be posting the opportunity in various state and municipal publications as well as on selected web sites.


            But after hearing some of their initial reasons for wanting to change counsel – again – it might be better if they post their request on a different type of web site.  You might soon see an ad similar to this one in the personals section of your favorite newspaper or web page:


            “Beautiful small town’s highest elected body seeking attentive, loyal lawyer to agree with us at all costs.  Must be an “advocate” and not an “accommodator” – unless accommodating us.  Must deliver only agreeable opinions, never even imply we are wrong publically or privately, and like long walks on the beach while holding at least three hands.  Must like sports, but can’t be too big a Patriots fan.  Experience in accurately analyzing Open Meeting Law unnecessary.  Submit application with loyalty oath to Town Hall.”


            But those answering need be aware the board may not be looking for a long-term relationship.


            The move to dump the current firm of Gelerman and Cabral LLC was supported by selectmen Lorraine Brue, Virginia Coppola and James Gray.  It was opposed by James DeVellis and David Feldman.  It came despite the understanding of at least some members that selectman had committed to the current firm for three years, and was now dumping them after two.


            Coppola did indeed say Richard Gelerman, the main attorney, has been too much of an accommodator.  She explained that an advocate for the board’s goals was needed.  She also said the firm lacked “depth”, and that other town boards had found it necessary to hire outside counsel on various issues because of that.


            While the title of the position is “Town Counsel”, the truth is lawyers who hold these jobs basically work for the selectmen – the board that hires and fires them.  If an attorney does not make a majority of their bosses happy, the relationship is not likely to last.


            To anyone observing selectmen’s meetings over the last year or so, it is obvious Gelerman was on the outs with some board members.  Much of the conversation directed towards him tended to be more than a bit condescending.  Two of the selectmen in the majority are up for reelection in May.  It may be they felt the change had to be done before the possibly of a power shift.     


The fact Gelerman had to advise his bosses they violated the Open Meeting Law on at least two occasions has not helped, nor has his role in resolving some controversial issues (like Splittsville) where the board was forced to do an uncomfortable about-face.


            The “depth” issue is a bit of a red-herring argument.  It is not unusual for town boards in any community with specialized needs to seek outside counsel for bonding, labor issues or special circumstances.


            Foxboro’s issues and legal situations are especially complicated.  With an NFL franchise supplying a huge percentage of its revenue and bringing with it many complex contracts and agreements, the legal and political issues can be difficult.


            It may be that finding a new law firm to represent them is a good thing.  The board must have faith and confidence in their legal representation.  If that no longer exists – regardless of the reasons – it can put the entire community in a bad situation.


            Of course, there is a difference between just simply replacing your attorney at the end of their contract, and unceremoniously dropping them with almost a year left on their agreement.  And making the decision after only one brief public discussion implies either a failure to consider the matter carefully enough or a predetermined plan.


            But that would indicate a disregard for the Open Meeting Law.  Surely that is not the case.


            An attorney must indeed be an advocate for their clients.  But the attorney also owes them honesty and his/her best advice – even if they don’t want to hear it.


            And that can make those long walks on the beach very uncomfortable.


Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and a longtime local official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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