PLANET HEARS FROM PRINCIPALS IN THE SHERMAN-YON ACT CALLING FOR NO-CONFIDENCE IN CITY SOLICITOR … BIANCHI AND DEGNAN, CONCILORS SAY, MISLED AND MISREPRESENTED THEM … STILL WAITING TO HEAR FROM THE MAYOR … plus … SCHOOL COMMITTEE MEMBERS, SAVE AN IN-HIDING JIM CONANT, EXPLAIN THEIR ‘YES’ VOTE IN CONTRACTGATE, WITH LOTS OF REGRETS
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, FRIDAY, OCT. 5, 2012) — THE PLANET has still to hear from Mayor Dan Bianchi on the petition that will be filed by city council president Kevin Sherman, at-large, and Ward 1 councilor Christine Yon. The Sherman-Yon Act requests the council to issue a “no-confidence” vote in city solicitor Kathy Degnan. THE PLANET will point out that it’s unusual for the mayor not to respond to our request for comment.
In an interview, Yon, who initiated the petition and then sought and received co-sponsorship with Sherman, made clear that “this petition is not intended to be personal in any way. It’s strictly a measure taken based on her professional conduct, particularly in the Spectrum case.” She said she sought the co-sponsorship of Sherman because of his status as council president and because she “didn’t not want to be out there alone with this, without support, going in.”
Spectrum, of course, is Spectrum Health Systems, which will be putting a methadone clinic to treat heroin addicts in downtown Pittsfield, in the Yon Building (no connection with Chris Yon) on Summer Street, above Berkshire Nautilus.
Yon mentioned a meeting with the mayor in the corner office. Also present was Donna Mattoon, the mayor’s director of administrative services. The meeting took place on June 12, 2012:
“I was asked by Mayor Bianchi to meet with him,” she said. “Mayor Bianchi told me we had a settlement agreement [with Spectrum] that needed his signature. He told me we were giving Spectrum $100,000, and they were locating to Stoddard Avenue. That’s the first time I had heard about the money or the location. I was shocked that he wouldn’t have let me know, before an agreement was reached, since that’s my ward. Those are my constituents. I went home from that meeting with a sick feeling, totally upset. I couldn’t believe they had done this.”
Yon said that after Bianchi informed her of the $100,000 and the location, she asked him “how we came to this settlement without input from anyone. I asked the mayor how he could unilaterally come to a settlement like this. He didn’t answer me. I also asked why we were giving Spectrum $100,000, because I was under the impression [the city was] winning the case. I also asked about the location, why a residential neighborhood. The mayor said it wasn’t a residential neighborhood. I told him it was. He said it wasn’t. We couldn’t agree on that, and after, the mayor asked me not to tell anyone about the settlement agreement. I honored his request and told no one about it, not the agreement, not the $100,000, and not the location. Nothing. I said nothing. I kept my word.”
Later, when word got out about the agreement, Yon says, Bianchi accused her of leaking the news. Yon vehemently denied that, and a heated conversation followed. That was based, Yon said, on other parties who learned of the agreement from a source other than her. She mentioned Bob Skowron, who works at the county jail for Sheriff Tom Bowler.
On June 13, Yon said, she got a call from Debbie Dwyer of Dwyer’s Funeral Home, located next door to the proposed Stoddard Avenue location. Yon said Dwyer asked her “if I knew anything about the methadone clinic on Stoddard Avenue. I asked Debbie who provided her with this information. Debbie informed me … that Bob Skowron, who works at the jail for Tom Bowler, was her source.”
This becomes critical, Yon says, because the next day, June 14, two things happen: (1) Skowron sends a hot e-mail to Mayor Bianchi about the location of the clinic. (2) Solicitor Degnan calls Spectrum’s attorney Paul Holtzman, who is not in. She leaves a voice mail that Yon says “placed the city and myself in a serious potential liability situation.”
Here is a transcription of Degnan’s voice mail to Holtzman, who, remember, would like nothing more than to be able to go to the judge in court and be able to prove Pittsfield is opposed to the clinic because of illegal discrimination against the handicapped (heroin junkies).
[DEGNAN TALKING]: “The mayor has every intention of signing the settlement agreement, but he was trying to allay and get rid of fears of this one councilor [Chris Yon] that I told you about, that she was absolutely certain now Spectrum is going to be awful for Pittsfield and there are going to be people running around in their johnnies. The world is going to come to an end, I guess if that happens, so the mayor wants to allay their fears.”
“I never said any one of those things,” Yon said, calling into the question the integrity and the veracity of Degnan and the mayor. “Attorney Degnan never consulted with me regarding the statements given. I never made any of the statements mentioned in the voice mail. However, regardless of where the statements came from, Degnan provided damaging information to Spectrum against her client, thus opening a fresh case of discriminatory actions [by Spectrum] against the city of Pittsfield.”
In fact, Spectrum used Degnan’s voice mail to Holtzman, along with the mayor’s well-publicized timeline, to file a motion for a preliminary injunction against the city, that the judge granted. According to Yon and Sherman, this demonstrated gross incompetence resulting in a damaging finding for the city on a case in which it had prevailed three times in court and was, in the process, about to set precedent that other municipalities could use in lawfully keeping Spectrum from setting up shop inside their areas.
Bowler and Bianchi, readers may recall, were closely involved in each other’s campaigns in 2011. Matton, who is Bowler’s sister, managed Bowler’s campaign.
Several sources, including councilors, suspect Bowler as the source of the initial leak. Yon said that because the mayor’s office painted her as the source of the leak and also as the cause or “agitator” of the neighborhood protest over the Stoddard Avenue location due to Degnan’s represetations in court, she, Yon, had been personally liable and open to a lawsuit by Spectrum on the basis of violating federal law, specifically, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yon said it got to the point where she even had to hire her own attorney.
Yon blamed the poor work of Degnan in court, representing the city against Spectrum for this.
“She’s my attorney,” Yon said. “As city solicitor, she represents me. I’m supposed to be able to trust her, but she went to court and basically threw me under the bus, blaming me for the neighborhood protests over the location. I was only doing my job as their representative. I had an obligation to represent their concerns, and that’s what I get for it.”
Here is Sherman’s explanation of the dramatic and unusual move:
Yes, this matter is on the agenda for Tuesday October 9, 2012. Councilor Yon and I spoke with the Mayor on September 6 to discuss our concerns, many of which stemmed from the actions taken by the Solicitor during the Federal Lawsuit with Spectrum though there are other examples of questionable judgement/advice as well over the past nine months. Following that conversation in which we asked that our concerns be addressed, I had multiple follow up meetings and conversations with the Mayor. I attempted to meet with Ms. Degnan and the Mayor but that meeting never came to fruition. I also reached out to Ms. Degnan last week but a meeting never materialized.
Given a month from the start of the conversation, it was unclear how or if the concerns would be addressed. This petition is one of last resort as I would have preferred a collaborative resolution. Unfortunately, I was left with no choice but to support my colleague, Councilor Yon, who was directly effected by the behavior in the course of litigation along with the residents of Pittsfield who elected me to protect their best interests. I believe that is what I’m doing in this case. The concerns that I have, that I’ve heard from colleagues, and that I’ve heard from members of the public are based in fact and is not personal in nature. The bottom line is there is little evidence that we as a city and as a Council are being represented effectively and, therefore, there is a lack of confidence from that standpoint.
The effect of the vote would be to put our concerns on the record and to vote accordingly. If the vote is 11-0 or 0-11 it holds no weight other than to show the extent of the concerns. Believe me when I say this is the last thing I wanted to do but feel it is my responsibility as Council President and At Large City Councilor to stand behind the residents and my colleague. If any other department head caused as much harm to another colleague I would follow the same course of action: Address the situation with the managing authority and attempt to meet with all parties involved to find a resolution. At the point in time that it appeared a resolution would not be forthcoming, I would take the next necessary step which is what I’ve done here. I can’t stress enough that this is an action of last resort.
In my last conversation with the Mayor I stated that if a vote of no confidence was put forth, following that vote no matter the outcome, I would be in his office the following weeks to continue to work with him and his administration on matters vital to our community. I will not let this one issue grind government to a halt. I know that we will rise above as professionals once this issue is put to bed and work for the best interest of the City.
Both Sherman and Yon also agreed. According to them:
* That Degnan’s work on matters other than Spectrum’s also has been subpar.
* That the city of Pittsfield and its citizens are being poorly represented by Degnan, who, they say, is in over her head and incompetent.
* That as a consequence of what they say is her incompetence, the city faces constant risk now any time she has to represent it (meaning councilors, citizens, and any other municipal interest) and that this will eventually come back to haunt the city, “big time,” as it already has, they say, in the “unnecessary” $100,000 payout to Spectrum.
* They tried multiple times to resolve this in a collegial manner with Mayor Bianchi and Degnan, but each time they, especially the mayor, rebuffed their efforts.
Again, THE PLANET tried to get comment from the mayor’s office, but they failed to return our request.
Moreover, as a result of Degnan’s characterizations of Yon’s alleged comments, which Yon denies in total and without qualification, Yon also was subpoenaed on June 26. [EDITOR'S NOTE: THE PLANET INITIALLY REPORTED THAT DEGNAN ALSO WAS SUBPOENAED. THAT WAS INCORRECT. ONLY YON RECEIVED A SUBPOENA ON JUNE 26. IT WAS SENT TO HER THROUGH DEGNAN, WHO WAS YON'S ATTORNEY IN THE CASE]. She was asked Next week, likely on Monday or Tuesday, THE PLANET shall have more about the subpoenas and other aspects of this nightmarish case — nightmarish for the city and its poor, bedraggled, misrepresented residents.
It comes down to this: If counselors cannot rely on their own attorney for advocacy, and even worse, have to worry about that same counsel acting in a way that violates attorney-client privilege and supplying friendly information for the other side, nothing good will come of it going forward. THE PLANET arrives at this position from a neutral, objective, dispassionate review of the record. It’s not about GOBs or non-GOBs. It’s not about politics, primarily, though politics does enter the situation. It’s about whether or not the city of Pittsfield has first-rate representation on any court actions — and there are plenty of them — that affect the municipality.
In a brief interview later this afternoon, Barry Clairmont, councilor at large, said he would advise solicitor Degnan to appear at the Oct. 9 council meeting with an attorney, who would speak for her “and explain to us why we are wrong. I don’t think that case can be made.”
Ask the question: Would you want to go into court with Kathy Degnan as your attorney?
As Perry Mason was never quoted as saying, “Yikes.”
SCHOOL COMMITTEE MEMBERS EXPLAIN YES VOTES ON CONTRACTGATE
On the case of Contractgate — the agreement reached between Lynn Whitney, the secretary of the direction of vocational education in the Pittsfield Public Schools, Frank Cote, and the PPS to have free slave labor for Whitney to build her a new house courtesy of Taconic High School carpentry students — we polled various members of the school committee, the ones who voted for this sickening deal, to explain their vote.
The matter is now before the city council. Council president Kevin Sherman confirmed that the matter is on the agenda for Oct. 9, which ought to be a hum-dinger of a meeting.
“I have great concerns on the legality of the bidding and poor perception.” Sherman told THE PLANET. “I have a standing policy of allowing any item brought forward to be placed on the agenda. That way there is no bias or discrimination. I believe in open government.” Sherman says that “as it stands currently, I will not be in support of it.” He did say he reserves the right to change this position pending open debate.
Here, we post, without comments, the responses of school committee chairman Alf Barbalunga, Dan Elias, Kathy Amuso, and Kathy Yon. We have already covered the only lone dissenting vote, Terry Kinnas, who first and alone uncovered the extremely odd irregularities of the contract. Amuso and Dan Bianchi were not present for the vote. Barbalunga, Elias, Jim Conant, and Yon voted for the deal. We did not receive a response from Conant, who apparently is in hiding from accountability.
We are publishing the responses verbatim, as we received them:
before the 8/22 meeting & vote i was not aware that lynn whitney was a pps employee. when we found out, mrs. yon asked on-the-record (obviously all these meetings can be viewed & my comments confirmed) if there was any conflict of interest issue, and the response was no. that is why i voted yes
i would like to note that at this past September 27th meeting, all seven school committee members, including mr. kinas & mayor bianchi, voted to approve and forward this contract to the city council for final review. that being said, i stated that i absolutely disagreed with the ethics opinion, which stated that this may be a permissible contract. furthermore, i believe mrs. amuso wisely asked our attorney at least once, what action the school committee should take. the response was to approve and forwards to the city council. finally, i stated in my opinion this was also a curriculum issue, and these students were told that this construction project would break ground on September 28th, and we had duty to attempt to follow through on that arrangement, with the understanding we were already behind the eight ball
i have full faith in attorney russ dupere; to the best of my knowledge there is no precedence for this type of ethics opinion & unfortunately attorney dupere was not kept in the loop by the city solicitor, informing him of legal advice she was providing others. it is also not for a lack of this chair over the past five weeks, repeatedly requesting details and further information. i believe our attorney, on behalf of the impacted students, was trying to make the best of a challenging official state ethics opinion
i have no official recommendation to the city council on this matter, unless i am specifically called upon. i have full confidence in council president sherman and the other ten councilors to vote in the best interest of “the city”, which can sometimes be a conflicting analysis. i will also say that no individual school committee member should officially represent the school committee as a whole at anytime, with limited exceptions of the chair doing so
if the city council does not approve this agenda item at the October 9th meeting, i would be supportive of rebidding the entire project, with a revised policy, including enhancements regarding public notice, and restrictions on who may be eligible to respond
finally, some general comments: i would like to note this process commenced before dr. noseworthy & dr. crowe assumed leadership of our school district. on a personal note, i back in the early/mid 80’s my grandfather’s construction company partnered with the pittsfield public schools. however, i believe the formula was the students would provide labor for the curriculum experience of building a new home, and then the home would be put on the market. there was no predetermined home recipient, and it was the contractor’s obligation/liability to sell the home for whatever the market value may have been. if we continue with this program, this is a practice we may want to return to
—– 00 —–
We received limited applications for this project. I feel this was the
best project for our vocational students. It should have been
investigated more before the vote. Sometimes, because of timing, we do
move things along a little quicker than we should and not spend enough
time reviewing them. We should have done a better job with the proposal
and the process. I would recommend that the city council approve this
project. I would like the students in the vocational program to begin
working on the house. If the ethics ruling came back differently, then
I would say that we need to rebid. We should have done things better on
the front end of this process. I do not want the students penalized.
—– 00 —–
I put faith in the fact that administration would produce a document that was legal and moral. To be completely honest with you I was only half paying attention at the time, my mind was on the situation with Bill Sturgin and radio problem. I was very bothered by what took place and my mind wandered. I have approved these vocational building projects year after year and wrongly assumed that there would be no problems. Do I regret the vote, absolutely. I would have never voted under any circumstance for a project to be built for a school employee, I did not make the connection and I am disappointed it would progress to us in the first place. I had no problem in sending it to the city council because I felt they would not approve it and would force us to re bid. My biggest regret is that so much time has elapsed and the Students will now pay the price.
—– 00 —–
Yon replied to our inquiry in person, in a chance interview conducted on the fly in Pittsfield. Essentially, she said that she voted for the deal because of assurances given to the committee on Aug. 22 by the committee attorney and by the school department administration.
—– 00 —–
The matter is now in the hands of the Pittsfield City Council. The council, because it is not the school committee and therefore not in conflict with the contract between the schools and a school department employee, represents Lynn Whitney’s last chance to get this deal pushed through. If the council approves, the deal is on. THE PLANET also says that if this happens, there will be an uproar on the part of all good citizens who are interested in honest government. If, on the other hand, the council rejects this, the matter can be rebid again, under equal terms with everyone getting a shot, and the carpentry students at THS can get to work.
WHEN THE FIRST YOUNG CARPENTER IN WHITNEY’S BOUNDLESS MIND A WORK TO OUT-DO IMMORTAL ROME DESIGNED, CONVINCED, AMAZED KINNAS CHECKED THE BOLD DESIGN AND RULES AS STRICT THEIR LABOR’ED WORK CONFINED.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.