Same BCWA Issue, Same Outcome
The Bristol County Water Authority board decides 4-3 to retain Cameron & Mittleman, specifically longtime attorney Sandra Mack, as its legal counsel.
Nearly a month after its members voted on the matter — and following an outcry by residents — the board of the Bristol County Water Authority did a do-over Wednesday evening for the hiring of its legal counsel.
The outcome was the same as the first time last month – although the vote of the board members was closer, 4-3. It was 5-2 the first time. Two members were absent both times.
The BCWA voted to retain Cameron & Mittleman, specifically partner Sandra Mack, as its legal counsel in a special meeting in Warren. The second meeting was set up after the first meeting was challenged as a possible Open Meetings Law violation.
Mack, who has been providing most of the legal services for the BCWA since 1986, said she had “no reaction” — several times — to the close vote by the board. She watched from the audience as the board and several “watchdogs” batted around her previous service to the water authority.
The board members who voted to retain Cameron & Mittleman were Chairman Allan Klepper of Barrington, John Jannitto of Warren, Paul Bishop of Bristol and Vice Chairman William Gosselin of Warren. They offered similar reasons to retain her.
Jannitto, a former chairman, said: “I’m convinced we have good, competent legal services.”
Bishop said: “She’s done an excellent job in the one and a half years I’ve been on the board. I see no reason to make a change.”
Gosselin said: “I understand the passion” of those who testified against retaining Mack. But, he said, he had to support her after he asked Executive Director Pamela Marchand how important Mack was to her.
“Cameron & Mittleman knows the players — that, I think, would be difficult for a new firm,” said Marchand.
Klepper, who spoke last and, in effect, broke a 3-3 tie, said: “She understands all the players and issues that we will confront in the future. She has the most thorough grasp of the issues, and she has agreed to a cap” on her compensation.
The board members who did not support a motion made by Jannitto to retain Mack were Kevin Fitta of Barrington, Ray Palmieri of Warren and Robert Allio of Barrington. They echoed one another on the suggestion to go in a different direction.
Palmieri said: “I cannot support Mack” because “her costs are higher than other firms ($375 an hour typically), there was a lack of detail in her invoicing, and her advice on open records led to litigation.”
She also drafted what he termed an inappropriate letter seeking information on three ratepayers who were trying to get information from other sources because they couldn’t get it from BCWA on her watch.
“We’ll get the business-as-usual mode,” Palmieri said.
“All the firms we talked to are qualified. So we should consider rotating professional services over time,” said Fitta. “There also is a public perception issue, rightly or wrongly, and the other firms are less expensive.”
Allio said: “All organizations need to pay attention to new perspectives, and look elsewhere for that.”
Residents renew call for Mack's removal — to no avail:
Gary Morse of Barrington, one of the watchdogs who was a target of the so-called inappropriate letter, again asked the board to consider the fact that a strategic plan called for under the Bristol County Water Act was never completed on Mack’s watch.
Jeff Black of Barrington, another watchdog who filed open-records litigation against BCWA with Mack on retainer, said: “We had to pull teeth to get information. There was a total lack of transparency.”
He also said other firms have lower fees, which “bothers me a lot because these fees were paid while the infrastructure was deteriorating.”
Marina Peterson of Bristol, the third watchdog, said: “With her as counsel, we had to dig so hard to get the truth, and that’s very disconcerting.”
The other firms interviewed twice by the board are Keough & Sweeney, LTD and Schacht & McElroy. Petrarca & McGair could not do a second interview, said Klepper, but asked to be reconsidered. Adler Pollock & Sheehan also could not do a second interview.
Morse, Black, and Peterson had raised issues about the board's handling of the Dec. 20 legal counsel vote, saying that an earlier meeting on Dec. 18 was improperly held.
Since no agenda had been filed with the Rhode Island Secretary of State's office for the Dec. 18 session, and because board members noted that discussion when they voted on Dec. 20, Black claimed the board had acted illegally.
At first, Klepper defended the Dec. 18 meeting as a "closed session," adding that he had consulted with lawyers from another community who approved of it.
But after Morse and Black again challenged the handling of the legal contract at the board's Jan. 3 meeting in Warren, the board decided to revisit the issue on Jan. 9.
Cameron & Mittleman attorney Sally McDonald told the board members that the state law was "unclear," and recommended another public hearing on the matter, which led to Wednesday night's session.