Revived Prudential Committee Dives Into Cotuit Fire District Issues
By: James Kinsella
The two newly elected members of the Cotuit Fire District Prudential Committee took action in their first meeting to cut much of the Gordian knot bedeviling the committee and the district.
Richard G. Barry and Laurie C. Hadley, who were elected to their seats in a special election Tuesday, successfully passed motions to pay a lingering legal bill and to post meetings of all district committees, and to post them more widely.
The committee, which has three members and which supervises the finances of the district, met Wednesday evening at the Cotuit Fire Station. About 20 people attended.
The election Tuesday of Mr. Barry and Ms. Hadley resurrected the committee, which went into limbo following the resignations of two members at the committee’s October 20 meeting.
The decisions of King F. Lowe and Bruce W. Kelly to resign left the committee with just one member, Amy M. Kates. As such, she was unable to muster a quorum and the committee effectively ceased to function.
On Tuesday, the district held a special election to fill the two vacant positions, and district voters elected Mr. Barry to the unfilled term of Mr. Lowe, whose term expires next May. Mr. Barry defeated Diane M. Fay, 173 to 113.
Voters also elected Ms. Hadley to the unfilled term of Mr. Kelly, whose term expires in May 2012. Her opponent, Richard M. Capen, had withdrawn from the race. Ms. Hadley drew 269 votes while Mr. Capen received 13.
Following the election, Ms. Fay and her sister, Paula Fay, questioned the validity of the election, complaining to fire district clerk Charles W. Eager that a piece of campaign literature for Mr. Barry had been left on a chair near the voting booths.
On Wednesday, Mr. Eager said that he had checked with state election officials about the complaint. They told him, he said, that the complaint had no standing because it had been made after, rather than during, the election.
Barnstable Town Clerk Linda P. Hutchenrider—who has no say over Cotuit Fire District elections, but who supervises townwide elections in Barnstable—took the same view.
On Wednesday, Ms. Hutchenrider further questioned the material impact of the piece of literature, saying no one knew how long the piece had been there and doubting that the piece would have swayed the 60 votes that enabled Mr. Barry to defeat Ms. Fay.
Paula Fay, Diane’s sister, attended Wednesday’s meeting of the prudential committee. But neither she nor anyone else brought up the matter during the public comment section of the meeting.
The start of Wednesday’s meeting was delayed for about 15 minutes when Ms. Kates failed to appear.Mr. Barry and Ms. Hadley, who sat waiting at the table at the front of the fire station conference room, finally decided to take action on a matter pending the revival of the committee, the certification of the district tax rate.
Following a brief public hearing, the two decided to follow past precedent and voted 2-0 for a factor of one, rather than a split rate for residential and commercial properties. They also followed precedent in eschewing residential or small business exemptions.
The new district tax rate is $1.68 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation. District treasurer Agnes C. Murray said the rate is up from $1.56 for the prior year, reflecting a loss of property value in the district.
Ms. Kates, who said she had been delayed in getting out of her driveway due to this week’s snowstorm, then arrived.
The committee proceeded to organize. The board voted 3-0 to name Ms. Kates chairman and to name Ms. Hadley clerk.
For the next two hours, the committee dove into a series of issues facing the fire district. Committee actions included:
• A 2-1 vote, with Ms. Kates dissenting, to pay a $14,468 legal bill incurred by the district to examine how and whether voters could reduce the health insurance benefit available to the district’s elected officials.
District residents had voted at the annual meeting in May to reduce the district’s subsidy of the officials’ health insurance premiums from 75 to 50 percent, but the vote subsequently was ruled invalid.
Ms. Kates said Mr. Lowe, before his departure, had commissioned the legal work on his own, and that the committee had not scheduled a vote on funding the legal work.
Mr. Barry said, however, that two committee members (Mr. Lowe and Mr. Kelly) had authorized the expenditure in writing.
If the committee did not vote to pay the bill, Mr. Barry said, the district would be dunned for the unpaid bill and possibly face a higher hourly rate for the work that was performed.
Both he and Ms. Hadley successfully argued for paying the bill and moving on.
• Voted 3-0 to post notices of all district committees, including advisory committees, and to post them more widely.
At present, the committee is required to notify the town clerk of any meetings of its elected boards, and to post those notices in two public places in the district.
A district skirmish had arisen prior to Wednesday’s meeting over whether meetings of advisory committees had to be posted.
Ms. Hadley and Mr. Barry successfully pushed for a blanket approach to post all district committee meetings.
“I think we should post everything, including birth announcements,” Ms. Hadley said.
The committee also decided to increase its number of posting places, adding the Cotuit library.
• Decided to postpone any discussion of what, if anything, to do about the district treasurer, Agnes Murray, to an executive session.
The prudential committee decided earlier this year not to reappoint Ms. Murray to the position. She has continued to serve, however.
Ms. Kates said the prudential committee, prior to its dissolution, had been discussing for a number of meetings what action to take regarding Ms. Murray and the position, including whether to replace her.
Mr. Barry said discussions involving personnel should be held in executive session.
• Decided to seek at least three bids for addressing problems at Freedom Hall, the historic structure on Main Street for which the committee bears responsibility.
Issues include mold and standing water in the basement, and possibly related structural concerns. Two bids already were being put forward.
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