Sunday, March 18, 2007

Could Be Worse: Could Be South Hadley

Saturday's print edition of the Gazette left out the last two sentences from the Internet version that makes it very clear the state sided with me on my public documents request:

States asked to rule on Ledges record request
Daily Hampshire Gazette 3/17/2007

SOUTH HADLEY - A candidate for Selectboard has asked the state's supervisor of public records to intervene in obtaining the names, ages and addresses of people who are members at the town-owned Ledges Golf Course.

Daniel Champagne this week sent a letter to Alan Cote, supervisor of public records, requesting assistance after a written request for this census data made to Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi was denied.

Though Vinchesi provided information about season passes and total rounds played in 2006, 55 and 28,031 respectively, in a letter sent to Champagne Tuesday, she pointed out more specific details are not available.

"We do not track different players or the number of South Hadley golfers and no public records exist to this effect," Vinchesi wrote.

Champagne, whose letter is co-signed by Sherrie Champagne, a candidate for Town Meeting, isn't sure of this.

"Being business owners for 26 years, we know of no business that would not want to track client census information," Champagne wrote in his March 12 letter to Cote.

The Champagnes have been critical of January's Town Meeting decision to construct a nearly $700,000 clubhouse at the course. Supporters have argued that the clubhouse will help reduce the annual deficits the course has been running.

Champagne's letter requests that, in addition to the people who are members, the names of all players in 2006 and those who purchased gift certificates also be released.

A similar public information request was made in Amherst last Spring, where golf course critic Larry Kelley was initially rebuffed in his effort to get the names, ages and addresses of people who are members at Cherry Hill Golf Course.

In April, Cote supported Kelley's request to get this information from Amherst officials:

"(G)iven that the Cherry Hill Golf Course is a municipally funded and managed facility the course is subject to the Public Records Law," Cote wrote.


Last year I sent out this release:

Amherst strikes out in Public Records contest

Former Amherst Bulletin columnist Larry Kelley requested (1/10/06) the names, ages and addresses of the 196 season pass holders (2005) at the municipally owned Cherry Hill Golf Course. The town invoked Exemption (C)“intimate details of a highly personal nature,” to deny the request.

In a letter to (now retired) Amherst Town Manager Barry Del Castillo Supervisor of Records Alan Cote directed “You are herby ordered to provide Mr. Kelley with copies of the responsive records…”

At a public (1/9/06) Select board meeting, where the fate of the golf course hung in the balance, Mark Power, a Town Meeting member who obtained a no-bid concessions contract at the golf course testified: “Over 80% of membership at Cherry Hill are college students, teen-agers under 17, and senior citizens.”

However, a 2003 marketing study commissioned by the town and directed by a Amass Sports Management professor revealed exactly the opposite: Users over age 65 came in at 5% and those ages 12-17 barely registered at 2%.

In 1996 the Public Records division also sided with Kelley on the release of public documents concerning the sexual harassment case filed against Superintendent Dan Engstrom by a seasonal employee. The town investigated (costing taxpayers almost $20,000) found him guilty, and then tried to keep it quiet.

Of course, only in Amherst would town officials meet in private to discuss how to react to an order to release public documents:

In a message dated 4/12/06 7:19:34 AM, writes:
I've put this item on the agenda for the next 3 way meeting of chair, vice-chair and manager (Friday - not open to the public.)

In a message dated 4/17/06 6:29:45 AM, Amherst AC writes:
Hey Gerry,
So am I going to get the names and addresses by Wednesday, April 19'th? In a follow-up phone conversation the Public Records folks said you had ten "consecutive days" (not business days) to respond. And your letter arrived Monday, April 10'th.

In a message dated 4/17/06 11:18:27 AM, writes:
I asked John Musante for the info for my own use and he agreed that he had to send it to you. Anne Awad suggested the town send out a notice to all season pass holders that you have requested this information and that we must send it out per instructions of the Public Records dept. I'll remind John Musante of his deadline.

So I complained to the DA about this Friday 3 way meeting (And of course, at the time nobody knew Selectboard Chair Awad and Selectman Hubley were secretly married):

Northwestern District Attorney
Elizabeth Scheibel
One Gleason Plaza
Northampton, Ma 01060
Amherst Open Meeting Law Complaint

I wish to file a formal complaint about a closed meeting held April 14, 2006 on town property between interim Amherst Town Manager John Musante, Select Board Chair Anne Awad and Select board Vice-Chair Gerry Weiss where matters of public concern were discussed and actions suggested.

On Monday April 10’th the town of Amherst and I received a letter from the Secretary of State’s Office overruling Amherst’s denial of my Public Documents request for the names, addresses and ages of Cherry Hill Golf Course Season Pass holders.

Since Mr. Weiss quotes Ms. Awad suggesting the town take actions (sending out letters) concerning this issue, obviously a public policy discussion took place at that private meeting Friday, April 14’th.

If one-less-than-a-quorum of Select board members routinely meet on Friday’s to set simple housekeeping details with the Town Manager for their weekly Monday night meetings, that’s fine…but when discussion takes place, I believe that crosses the line. Circumventing the Open Meeting Law by ignoring the spirit of that essential regulation.

Sincerely Yours,

Larry Kelley

The DA found that since a quorum was not present no violation occured. Go figure!

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