HANSON — Selectmen on Tuesday, Nov. 27 voted to retain the services of Mead, Talerman & Costa MTC of Millis as general town counsel, but opted to end 14 years of work with labor counsel Norris, Murray & Peloquin LLC of Norwood.
The board unanimously voted to contract with Clifford & Kenny LLP of Pembroke for labor counsel services as of Jan. 1, 2019, with current attorney Leo Peloquin completing current work and transitioning all other projects to Clifford & Kenny.
Peloquin’s performance in the divisive investigation into rental and operational practices as Camp Kiwanee two years ago was a major factor in the decision for some Selectmen. Others cited the division of labor used by Clifford & Kenny — one partner dealing with fire department contracts and the other specializing in police contracts.
Also interviewing for both general and labor counsel positions were Murphy, Hesse, Toomey & Lehane MHTL of Quincy and Brooks & DeRensis of Boston.
Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett initially questioned the intent of the discussion.
“There is no agenda on that,” said Selectmen Chairman Kenny Mitchell. “We can pick two finalists [for each service] and come back to another meeting and have them come back. If there’s a consensus on who we want to pick, we can pick them and we don’t have to have them come back.”
He noted that the process had been initiated to review the services provided by both current firms and to see if the town was “getting the best bang for the buck.”
Town Administrator Michael McCue said he had tailored the agenda item to permit the board to proceed in whatever manner they wished.
“I got a little concerned after the last meeting that the board may have felt I put too many constraints on the process,” he said. “I want the board to make its decision on how it wants to move forward.”
“This is important and I would love a unanimous vote,” said Selectman Wes Blauss. “I don’t want to string someone along if, in the end, minds are made up.”
For that reason, while Mitchell had argued for Peloquin’s firm, he voted for Clifford & Kenny as labor counsel in the end.
“I’m speaking for our current labor counsel,” he said. “Leo’s got the track record … he’s dealt with over 300 employee cases over the past 14 years and had only four go to litigation. … He’s won all four.”
Mitchell said Peloquin has always worked in the town’s best interests and has 33 years’ experience.
“The system wasn’t broken, but we wanted to test the waters to make sure the system wasn’t broken,” he said. “I don’t think Leo is the best-liked person in the town of Hanson, I don’t think he gets many Christmas cards from employees in the town … but I think we have to make the best decision for the town and put personal differences and personal opinions aside.”
He asked for McCue’s opinion on the choice because he deals with labor counsel most directly.
He said he is comfortable with the town’s current law firms for both general and labor counsel and it made sense to him to stay with the firms.
FitzGerald-Kemmett agreed with the points Mitchell made, but liked other firms’ use of a database of contract costs in the region that the town could use for comparison.
“Leo’s done [the job], but he hasn’t done it with the precision I would like to see,” she said. “I’d like to see some more preparation for some of those conversations that we’ve had. … If we retain him I’d want him to improve upon providing that information well in advance of those discussions.”
She also noted that while he has not been a popular figure, “He was asked to do a job.”
Selectman Jim Hickey said Clifford & Kenny’s division of work on contract negotiations appealed to him, as well that the firm would have Selectmen driving the process.
“He said any negotiations start with us,” Hickey said of a follow-up phone call he had with John Clifford. “Any negotiations that we did [since he joined the board] or contracts that we were going to sign, we got Friday at noontime on the agenda [with Peloquin]. Maybe that’s just me and it’s my fault because I never asked, but I didn’t know.”
Selectman Matt Dyer expressed concern that, while Peloquin knows the town, he is concerned about the firm’s plans for expansion and noted that Selectmen still have not been debriefed about the Camp Kiwanee issue.
“I feel I’m out of the loop on that, I don’t know exactly where we are,” Dyer said. “I don’t really know how to judge his work when I don’t know the ins and outs of the past.”
Dyer said he was impressed with the Clifford & Kenny approach for dividing contract work, use of comparison databases and a better client/staff ratio.
Mitchell did not like the two different attorneys for police and fire contract approach. McCue agreed that he would prefer working with a single attorney, but he would agree to talk to Clifford & Kenny as to which would be the lead attorney.
Blauss said the issue that sold him was the responses gleaned from FitzGerald-Kemmett’s question to the interviewing firms on their elective office experience.
Clifford & Kenny; Mead, Talerman; Brooks & DeRensis all have partners and/or associates with experience working for communities “on the other side of the desk” during contract negotiations.
“I taught for almost half a century and I was on boards and commissions in town and I think that gives you a huge perspective on things,” Blauss said.
Selectmen asked for a transition period to permit Clifford & Kenny to receive information on pending work with all new work going immediately to them as of Jan. 1.
Mitchell led the praise for Mead, Talerman attorney, Katherine Feodoroff, who has been Hanson’s lead attorney for the past couple of years. The firm’s RFP indicated Talerman would remain lead counsel with Feodoroff acting as immediate backup. But others did express concern that the reverse has been true lately.
Mitchell said Feodoroff proved “extremely knowledgeable [and] led us in the right direction” on the issue of marijuana control bylaws for the town.
“I had anticipated, going into this, that I wouldn’t want to change general counsel, but then when we met with Brooks & DeRensis and they started talking about the depth and breadth of what they have there I was thinking to myself — not about Kate — but have we at least been somewhat taken for granted?” said FitzGerald-Kemmett before she ultimately voted to keep the firm. “Kate has become the person. But Jay [Talerman] was the person we signed up with.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett questioned whether the board wanted a single firm to represent both general and labor counsel duties, or to keep them separate. She preferred separate firms.
“The reason for that is I like to have the agility that, if things go south with the relationship, we don’t have to start all over again with both disciplines,” she said. “It’s worked out pretty well so far and it’s good if you have a matter that might cross over into both [areas].”
Blauss was also grappling with the decision between Mead, Talerman and Brooks & DeRensis before ultimately deciding to keep the former. Hickey expressed a preference for Talerman, Mead noting the smooth transition between attorneys.
“I didn’t realize it had happened when it happened. It was such a smooth transition that I don’t think anybody noticed,” Hickey said. He also liked the way Feodoroff is able to explain difficult legal precepts in plain language. Dyer agreed.