Tempers flared at the Aug. 24 meeting of the Halifax Board of Selectmen when Ashley DiSesa, Halifax’s newest member of the board, introduced discussion for a possible vote for the replacement of the town’s various specialty attorneys with the town’s new choice for Town Counsel Brooks & DiRensis. DiSesa said that there was a lot of confusion on this because certain departments are being told to go to certain attorneys Brooks and DiRensis, she said, had mentioned at previous meetings that they would like to take over this work so there would be less chance of misinterpretation between attorneys and firms.
Town Administrator Charlie Seelig said that he was not aware of any confusion and told selectmen that it’s been the policy of the boards for 15 or 20 years that regulatory departments such as the Board of Health, Conservation Commission, ZBA, Planning Board, all have use of Town Counsel, they just have to notify selectmen that they are consulting with Town Counsel. Labor questions have been answered by Atty. Michael Gillen, who has served the town for perhaps 30 years. He has his own personnel to handle all of these things. Seelig asked, at Gillen’s request, for Gillen to have an opportunity to address the board before the decision was made as to who would handle the matters going forward. After a bit of discussion, selectmen allowed Gillen to speak before them at the Sept. 14 meeting.
Andrews spoke to DiSesa’s request saying that he believes, from his perspective, it makes sense to have one firm handling everything. Seelig explained that Paul (DiRensis) is Town Counsel of Record, but one of the requirements for appointment as town counsel is that there be backup so he has assigned other attorneys in his firm with aspects of Halifax’s town work. The discussion was tabled until Atty. Paul DiRensis could be present as he had not yet arrived.
Former Town Clerk Barbara Gaynor asked the board if it was financially wise to have work taken over by the new firm who would have to be brought up to date on these cases that have been going on for four or five years, and now will continue longer and possibly cost the town a whole lot more money. My understanding is that the new town counsel has charged more than $14,000 to the town. And YOU, having several cases against the town handled by Brooks & DiRensis, questioned why Andrews didn’t recuse himself on the discussion and vote. Andrews defended himself saying that he has recused himself in every discussion of his cases and other related issues, saying that the choice of consolidating the legal matters had nothing to do with his cases before the town. He reiterated that with everything going forward he would like to have one law firm representing the town.
Attorney Dirensis arrived and explained that he likes to be able to look at the town as a whole,. as opposed to different special counsels focusing on the different trees in the forest, I can look at the whole forest and get a sense of that’s good for the town so if I see that there’s a problem in a particular area, I could suggest an amendment to the bylaws of the town to fix that problem and if there’s a personnel issue then I can bring that to the board’s attention. I see myself as like the family doctor; I like to be able to see the whole patient and know what’s going on with the whole patient and figure out the overall health, because if you have a problem with your liver, it may very well have impacts on all kinds of other parts of the body, if you understand that medical reference, the town is being analogized to a body and the lawyer as the doctor.
I see myself as the old- fashioned doctor that actually comes to your house and sees you in your own bed and tries to figure out what’s going on and what you need. If there are things I don’t know about then I can’t get involved with, then I can’t treat the whole patient.”
Ashley DiSesa asked “Do you feel your firm can handle everything else for our town? DiRensis: I don’t know what everything is, as I wasn’t here earlier when the board reviewed them.
Gaynor questioned why Andrews could vote on this matter when he has cases with this attorney against the town and should recuse himself from the vote. Andrews countered that he had allowed her to speak at the public meeting and perhaps should not have. He didn’t know where she was getting her numbers and it was a matter that the board had not previously discussed.
Alan Dias, former member of the Planning Board and Board of Health objected loudly saying that the decision was made about 20 years ago to go with counsels who specialize in the kind of legal advice needed. He disagreed with the analogy of the using a general practitioner for all of the town’s needs. “If I have cancer, I’m going to a cancer doctor.” The town has been run successfully. The only reason that you two guys are trying to come up with this is a financial gain for you. Andrews and DeSesa retorted “That’s not the case.” Dias argued it IS the case. DiRensis said, I’m with the firm. I have a labor guy, land use, procurement guys, contract guys, litigators. I don’t do everything myself.
Dias spoke again to arguing that the only reason was to put the town in a weakened position in arguing Andrews’ suits against the town. Andrews said he should not have allowed Dias to speak and requested he be silent. Dias asked if we were living in a totalitarian government now.
Andrews declared a 5-minute cooling off period. Gaynor said she still hadn’t gotten an answer to her question. Town Administrator Charlie Seelig asked on behalf of Atty. Gilman asking that he could be heard by the board of selectmen before any decision was made on his cases. The board allowed that.
DiSesa moved the question to have all new legal matters except personnel matters currently with Attorney Gilman are to be referred to Brooks & DiRensis going forward and Andrews seconded the motion after Garron said no, he would not second.
Halifax Health Agent Bob Valery spoke to the board regarding the mask policy for the Town Hall building as well as other municipal buildings in town. “Our COVID numbers are back to where they were last spring. The data is worse now. “We had much discussion in our Board of Health meeting and came to a decision. At this point in time the board was pretty much going along with what the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) was doing. Then DESE changed its mind. What we would do as a town as far as municipal buildings is a personal choice. We had it in place, it worked effectively with no detrimental side effects. Do we lead by exmample or not? As for the school, it’s a very controversial issue. Vaccinations, very controversial. Testing? It’s another. We’re still working on getting funding for testing.” Valery said it will change but at this point in time erring on the side of caution can’t hurt.
Chairman Andrews, who is also a member of the Silver Lake Regional School Committee, said that beginning Oct. 1, each school with 80% vaccination rate can apply to waive the mask mandate. Charlie Seelig responded that with Halifax at 44% for the 12 to 15 year-olds and 51% for the 15-19 year olds, we’re not going to make it for the Oct. 1 deadline because we’re only going up by one or two per cent. Kingston’s a whole lot better than we are, and so’s Plympton. Plympton’s at 54% for ages 12 – 15, and 63% for ages 16-19.
“The politics are different here in Halifax than those in Plympton. I think there’s more antivax sentiment here, the result is that the schools those children will be attending will have a mask requirement longer than those whose parents choose to get their children vaccinated,” Seelig said.