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Mass. AG Sides With Berkshire Towns Over Closed Sessions On Housatonic Deal

The Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee met behind closed doors in Lee, Massachusetts.
Nancy Eve Cohen
The Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee met behind closed doors in Lee, Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Attorney General's office says by meeting in closed sessions last year, officials in five Berkshire towns did not violate the open meeting law. But the AG's office did rebuke several of the towns over related issues.

The meetings were to consider a potential deal with General Electric, the EPA and others to clean up PCBs from the Housatonic River.  The EPA considers PCBs a probable human carcinogen. GE's now-closed manufacturing plant in Pittsfield had contaminated the river with the toxin. 

The AG made the determinationsafter reviewing complaints filed last year by residents of Lee, Lenox, Great Barrington, Sheffield and Stockbridge.

In Lee, three residents alleged the public was shut out of the select board's decision to approve the cleanup deal, which includes a PCB disposal site in town. 

The residents said an open meeting was not held. But the attorney general's office sided with local officials in that instance and in complaints against the other towns, saying closed sessions were appropriate to discuss litigation strategy.

According to the AG's determination, the law allows executive sessions to discuss litigation strategy if an open meeting would have a negative impact on the "litigating position of the public body." The AG's office also determined the Lee Select Board "was not required ... to ratify the settlement agreement in open session."

The AG determined Sheffield and Stockbridge did violate the open meeting law by not properly publicizing the reason for going into executive session, and it ordered Lenox and Sheffield to release minutes from their closed meetings. 

The Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee approved a mediated settlement last year with GE to clean up the river. However, each of the towns still had to agree to the settlement.

Despite the AG's decision, some Lee residents plan to file a lawsuit in Berkshire Superior Court in the next few weeks objecting to the closed process, among other complaints.

In addition, two environmental groups, the Housatonic River Initiative and the Housatonic Environmental Action League, are appealing the EPA's cleanup permit.

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