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December 08. 2012 8:44PM

Marlborough right-to-know case tangled in privacy issues

MARLBOROUGH - A contempt of court case for alleged right-to-know violations against selectmen started Friday afternoon in Cheshire County Superior Court. The case will continue, but the next court date has not yet been set.

The case was brought against the board by resident Loretta Simonds, who had brought the original case against the board last year and won.

Last January, Judge Phillip P. Mangones found the board guilty of right-to-know violations and enjoined the board against further violations.

In June, Simonds filed another case alleging the board was in contempt by continuing to commit violations against the right-to-know law.

The board denied the claim and said it would fight the accusation in court.

On Friday afternoon, Simonds presented video and audio evidence to show the alleged disparity between what takes place at board meetings and what is reported in the minutes of meetings, she said.

In one example, she showed video of the board editing a letter, and she submitted meeting minutes that make no mention of that letter.

Her evidence also showed how board decisions had been made outside of posted meetings, she said.

In one instance, the board refused to speak to two petition warrant articles before the March Town Meeting, then announced at the town meeting that it did not recommend either article.

Simonds said she attended all meetings leading up to the March Town Meeting and the petition articles were never discussed.

Additionally, she said, neither is the decision to not recommend the articles mentioned in any of the meeting minutes leading up to the town meeting.

Simonds also submitted to the court 35 sealed non-public minutes that she had received from Town Administrator Sandy LaPlante when Simonds had requested all digital records of meeting minutes ever recorded.

Simonds, at first, said she thought the release of the private documents was a criminal matter and took it to County Attorney Peter Heed. He referred her to the Public Integrity Office of the Department of Justice, which, after review, told her it was a civil matter because it was a violation of the right-to-know law, Simonds said.

"It was an invasion of privacy that could adversely affect a reputation," Simonds said. "What they did violated the rights of nine individuals."

She also alleged the release of the documents violated HIPPA laws, several amendments of the U.S. Constitution, employment laws and the welfare act.

Representing the town, attorney Matthew Serge said the release of the documents was accidental and that Simonds was attempting to take advantage of the mistake.

"Isn't it true you just want the select board out of the way?" Serge asked Simonds on cross examination. "That you are taking advantage of the situation that you know is accidental."

Simonds acknowledged she had run for Select Board and lost in March and thought the board was doing a "lousy job" running the town, but said she was not out to get them and that there was nothing personal about her accusations of right-to-know violations "I didn't know what to do with those minutes. I really didn't.

"I feel there was a lack of control in the selectman's office that let those minutes (getting) out . They have the responsibly to guard those minutes, and they didn't," Simonds said. "There was no way to know when I got those files that those files were in there," she said.

About two hours into the hearing, Simonds concluded her testimony and Serge asked the judge for a continuation of the hearing so that he could present four witnesses - LaPlante and board members John Northcott, Gina Paight and Beverly Harris.

The judge agreed but no new court date was set.

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