HANSON — Hanson Selectman unanimously voted on Tuesday, Nov. 9 to hire Hull Town Counsel Jim Lampke to conduct an investigation of alleged ethics conflicts on the part of Zoning Board of Appeals members.
Town Counsel Katherine Feodoroff reported her research into such an appointment to the board, and available investigating attorneys at the meeting.
She said she reached out to six or seven people.
“Unfortunately, the timing is such that a lot of people turned me down as procured (or already contracted elsewhere),” she said. “We were able to get two proposals.”
Jim Lampke, who is also president of the Mass. Municipal Lawyers Assoc. (MMLA) and former member of the state Ethics Commission Jeanne Kempthorne were contacted for proposals.
Lampke does “quite a bit of special counsel work” regarding ethics issues where other town counsels have conflicts, Feodoroff said. She knows Lampke through municipal law circles, but has no prior working relationship with him. His proposal, for all work including review of documents and interviews with witnesses, involves a $200/hour fee.
The second proposal was received the day of the Selectmen’s Nov. 9 meeting, referred by one of the contacts that were unable to make a proposal.
Kempthorne, who is also a former assistant attorney general was seeking a fee of $250/hour, with travel time from her home on the North Shore included in her bill.
“Have checked references for these people to make sure that they are capable of doing the tasks we are asking them to undertake?” Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett asked.
Feodoroff said she knows Lampke to be a very competent lawyer, having worked with him in the past and Kempthorne was recommended by a judge, who was referred to Feodoroff through a colleague in her law office, but she said she did not have the chance to check their references herself.
Selectman Kenny Mitchell asked if either had provided any indication of how long an investigation might take or the total cost.
“I told them I needed this to be a fairly quick turnaround, so I’d like a month, maximum,” Feodoroff said. Neither had provided a cap figure.
Mitchell and FitzGerald-Kemmett asked if the board could set a cap or establish a time period for them to report back to determine if more time was needed. Mitchell said he would defer to Feodoroff to suggest a fair price cap.
She said $7,500 was reasonable.
“In my mind, I’d start getting a little anxious when we got to $10,000,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
Selectmen Jim Hickey noted that $7,500 at the hourly rates quoted was about 37 hours of work.
“That’s really a lot of hours to work on this,” he said. “I’d think it would come in under the $7,500.”
Feodoroff said every building and electrical permit pulled by the two members of the ZBA who performed the work in question is part of the scope of the investigation. But she is uncertain about proving residency problems.
“I know there are people who have documentation and complaints have been filed, so those things would be provided [to the investigator] automatically anyway,” she said.
“I’ve got so many questions and I’m struggling with have we defined the scope of this investigation?” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “Are we all clear on what we’re looking for, so that we’re clear with the person we’re hiring what we’re looking for.”
She said she doesn’t want there to be any misunderstanding that costs the town money and fails to provide the information the board needs.
Feodoroff said she couldn’t predict who might be interviewed, but did say if she were the investigator, she would want to interview the complainant, but that was up to that person to dictate.
Hickey asked if Town Administrator Lisa Green would be expected to sit in on interviews, noting that she wouldn’t have that kind of time to spare.
Feodoroff, again putting herself in the investigator’s place, said she wouldn’t want that, because the questions asked might not be answered with complete candor.
“It would also put Lisa in a very weird political position and would distract from the time that she’s got,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
Mitchell asked if a report of findings, which would be expected should wrongdoing be discovered, would appear before the board to make a report if no evidence of wrongdoing were found.
Selectman Joe Weeks flagged inaccuracies in the letter sent out to potential investigators — naming only three ZBA members instead of the entire board and mentioning a focus on conflict of interest surrounding the 40B application for Spring Street.
“I want to make sure we’re not inadvertently going down a path that we’re not supposed to,” he said, expressing a concern about future lawsuits or being set up for the investigation to fail.
“We don’t even want to hear about the 40B,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. She expressed specific information on situations where members should recuse themselves from dealing with applications where conflicts of interest might arise. Weeks said he would also like to see an examination of the ZBA members’ votes while on the board.
“I’d really like to see some probing,” she said. “The net is going to have to be cast beyond just Hanson. I don’t know how far.”
Familial relationships between board members and applicants as well financial ties that could create a Section 19 conflict are key issues Feodoroff said, cautioning that, if engineers are included, the investigation could end up like a search for needles in a haystack.
She said if there were familial relationships, it needs to be determined if proper disclosure forms were filed.
“I’m not mentioning specific names at all,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “This is an equal-opportunity employer. … I don’t know any of these people. I’m looking forward to the results of this investigation and putting this to bed.”
Feodoroff said the applications before the board being investigated are the triggers for potential ethics violations, and said she could clarify that any applications be reviewed.
“It’s about faith in the [ZBA],” Weeks said. “We have to give them a list of whatever we want them to investigate.”
Resident Tom Constantine asked if the board had considered next steps if an interviewee declines to answer questions on advice of legal counsel during the investigation.