, Newburyport, MA

Local News

March 2, 2012

Blais lawsuit deepens schism among selectmen

WEST NEWBURY — Selectman Tom Atwood announced this week that he won't participate in a mediation session aimed at resolving a lawsuit filed against the town by its former finance director.

The announcement followed an executive session held at the end of the board's regular meeting on Wednesday night.

During the meeting, selectmen Bert Knowles and Dick Cushing voted against asking town counsel Michael McCarron to attend the mediation session that is slated for today at the Boston law firm, Shilepsky, Hartley, Robb, Casey, Michon, LLP.

The legal mediation is an attempt to resolve a $500,000 civil lawsuit filed against the town last July by Tracy Blais. The lawsuit claims selectmen defamed Blais, discriminated against her and failed to live up to her contract. Atwood and former selectmen Glenn Kemper and John McGrath are also named in the suit.

"To have selectmen meet for a legal matter and mediation without town counsel is poor, irresponsible decision-making and best defined as an egregious violation of the public's trust," Atwood said. "I will be attending with my attorney but will sit in a separate area of the law firm's offices and will not be in the room with the selectmen where executive session will be held."

But Knowles said the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association is contractually obligated to represent the town in its indemnification of municipal employees. MIIA, which is responsible for the reimbursement of "all reasonable" attorney fees the town accrues from this type of lawsuit, has opted to use its own attorney.

The nonbinding mediation hearing does not require town counsel's presence, so the insurance company isn't going to cover any additional costs for McCarron to attend, Knowles said.

If a settlement is reached today, a costly court trial would be averted. But if the mediation does not result in a settlement, nothing discussed during mediation is admissible in court, the chairman said.

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