Town Finance Board Sharpens Opposition to Tax Case Bills
By IAN FEIN
On the eve of a pivotal town meeting, the West Tisbury finance committee this week sharpened its opposition to payment of legal bills linked to the Graham property tax case amid a widening swath of questions about the roles and responsibilities of town assessors and selectmen.
Finance committee member Peter Costas on Tuesday said his reluctance to pay the bills stemmed from an apparent lack of accountability from the assessors, who failed to attend nearly a dozen meetings over the last two months when selectmen and finance committee members analyzed the legal bills and discussed the case.
Mr. Costas said the assessors' unwillingness to speak publicly about the Graham case suggests they may be attempting to cover up previous misconduct.
"We aren't convinced that our assessors aren't covering something up," Mr. Costas told his fellow committee members. "And if they are - and they hired these people to help them get off - then I don't feel comfortable paying their attorneys.
"If I knew they had done nothing wrong, I think I'd be voting a different way," he added. "But I'm not convinced."
The case against the assessors was brought by town resident William W. Graham, who is challenging his assessments from fiscal years 2003 and 2004, when he paid the town more than a half-million dollars in property taxes. Mr. Graham has alleged, among other things, that town assessors committed fraud and falsified town records.
Heard by the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board in Boston last summer, the case is now the longest and costliest residential property tax appeal in the history of the commonwealth. A final ruling from the tax board is still pending and not expected until later this year.
Finance committee member Alexander DeVito acknowledged that assessors acted improperly when they incurred more than $200,000 in legal bills without prior approval, but warned Mr. Costas against passing judgment on the merits of the case. "I think you're implying something that is very dangerous," Mr. DeVito said.
"We'll acknowledge there has been a problem following the law," he said. "But the question is really: Should we pay these people?"
Mr. DeVito said the finance committee gave its tacit endorsement of the assessors' defense when it approved a reserve fund transfer one year ago to pay mounting bills from the case. But Mr. Costas responded that the request for the transfer came from executive secretary Jennifer Rand, not the assessors, and that she did not share details of the case at that time.
It also appears now that the reserve fund transfer may have violated state law; money for the assessors' case should have come from a specific town meeting appropriation.
"If the process had been followed properly, the assessors would have come to the town and explained their case," Mr. Costas said. "And then this whole public process would have started - as it should have."
Board of assessors chairman Michael Colaneri and the board of selectmen have acknowledged that they did not follow the proper legal process in this case. But all have stated that they were following past practices, which they had no reason to believe were wrong.
Records from the town hall, however, show that Mr. Colaneri and the current selectmen were notified more than two and a half years ago that the assessors' use of attorneys may have been improper.
At an April 2003 meeting of the West Tisbury board of selectmen, then-executive secretary Pia Webster brought to the selectmen's attention a legal bill from the board of assessors that she said came as a surprise to her and the town accountant. The $3,100 bill was sent by attorney Ellen Hutchinson, who was then representing the assessors in an unsuccessful case against the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank. Ms. Hutchinson now represents assessors in the Graham case.
According to minutes obtained by the Gazette, Mr. Colaneri attended the April 2003 meeting and objected to Mrs. Webster's characterization of the bill as unexpected. He said it was a misunderstanding that arose because Mrs. Webster was new in her position as executive secretary. He agreed that selectmen should be kept abreast of attorney costs but maintained that the assessors had done nothing wrong. "We understand the budget process," Mr. Colaneri said, according to the minutes.
It is now known that the $8,000 in legal bills incurred by the assessors and paid by the town for the land bank case may have violated state law.
Reached in her Edgartown office this week, Mrs. Webster said that after the April meeting she researched the Massachusetts General Laws and found that assessors needed town meeting approval and greater oversight by the selectmen before engaging counsel and incurring legal bills. She said she then sent a memorandum to the selectmen informing them of her findings.
"It's amazing to me that it's taken this long for people to notice," Mrs. Webster said this week. "It was just clear to anybody - common sense, without looking at state laws - you can't spend huge amounts of money without it being properly appropriated from voters."
Ms. Rand, who replaced Mrs. Webster as executive secretary, said this week that she could not find a copy of the memorandum.
Selectman and board chairman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter on Tuesday said he did not recall either the April 2003 meeting or subsequent memo. The selectmen's meeting was one of Mr. Manter's first after he was elected to the board.
The legal bills issue quietly reappeared four months later, when the selectmen conducted their six-month performance evaluation of Mrs. Webster. Selectmen in that meeting criticized her for, among other things, doing research without the direction of the board and interfering with other town hall departments.
According to a transcript of the evaluation meeting, selectman Glenn Hearn referred to the legal bill dispute with the assessors. "Sometimes we get complaints that they think you're looking into the legal issues, legal bills, that they're concerned with," Mr. Hearn said. "I don't think you've had the right approach in dealing with the people, especially in the position that you're new to the job."
Following her unsatisfactory evaluation, Mrs. Webster left the West Tisbury post that fall.
Selectmen hired Ms. Rand as executive secretary in January 2004, and the first bill from Ms. Hutchinson for work on the Graham case arrived three months later.
According to minutes of the April 2003 meeting and another memorandum sent by Mrs. Webster to all town hall departments, prior to her departure she intended to develop a townwide protocol for seeking legal advice and to budget for any upcoming legal cases during the 2005 fiscal year. It does not appear that either occurred.
After bills from the Graham case depleted the town's fiscal year 2005 budget, the selectmen last summer called a meeting with town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport, who recommended they adopt a policy for seeking legal advice.
The selectmen last month, more than two and a half years after Mrs. Webster raised the issue, adopted a formal town legal policy.