FAIRHAVEN – Attorney Thomas Crotty won praise for his 35 years as town counsel last week, but he suggested that he stop representing the town in legal disputes involving the wind turbines. Mr. Crotty told selectmen it was fine with him to represent everything else,like planning and zoning issues.
Mr. Crotty said the politics of wind turbines was heating up with Windwise and Friends of Fairhaven Wind forming political action committees.
“To some extent I’ve been dragged into it as an issue in it,” he said of the turbines on town land off Arsene Street. “I’ve tried for 35 years to stay out of town politics. Other boards have never complained, but if I’m going to be an issue in this, I don’t want it.”
Two options were on the table. One was to consider hiring a new town counsel. The other was to seek a special counsel to deal with the turbines and other issues involving green energy, like solar projects.
After some discussion, selectmen voted not to hire a special counsel, but decided to go forward with interviewing law firms for the town counsel role.
The board had already advertised for town counsel and had received requests for proposals from 15 law firms as of its meeting Aug. 8.
Selectman Robert Espindola, who has spearheaded the search for a new town counsel, said he’d talked with Kopelman & Paige, a large Boston firm that “represents more cities and towns in Massachusetts than anybody else.”
Mr. Espindola was also behind the effort to seek a special counsel for wind and solar projects. He said he’d like to find someone with expertise in alternative energy even if the law firm charges more for legal work. Mr. Espindola said the town could have benefited from someone with experience in that in working on past contracts.
Selectman Geoffrey Haworth said he wasn’t comfortable with Mr. Crotty at first because he thought he was representing the former board’s interests, not the current Board of Selectmen. But he said he’s come to realize that Mr. Crotty represents the interests of whatever board he is working with.
Mr. Haworth said if selectmen hire another firm, it will have a learning curve the town will have to pay for. He said they could end up paying for 100 hours of an attorney’s time to come up to speed.
Mr. Haworth also said they should consider the higher cost of using Kopelman & Paige, whose hourly rate is higher than Mr. Crotty’s.
Several members of the audience spoke in Mr. Crotty’s behalf. Daniel Freitas, founder of Friends of Fairhaven Wind, called it a political effort spearheaded by Windwise, which opposes the turbines, to get rid of Mr. Crotty,
“I know members of Windwise have lobbied to have Mr. Crotty removed,” Mr. Freitas said. “As a town taxpayer, I just can’t see the need for change.”
Mr. Freitas said Windwise has sour grapes because it lost a lawsuit in which Mr. Crotty represented the town’s interests. The lawsuit was brought by about 10 residents before the turbines went up.
Mr. Espindola was part of the lawsuit, but removed himself shortly before running for selectman. He obtained a legal opinion from Kopelman & Paige that was reviewed and accepted by the state Ethics Commission. The opinion said it was not a conflict for him to vote on turbine-related matters as long as he filed a statement with the town clerk’s office about his previous involvement with the lawsuit, but it added that he might want to recuse himself from matters involving the turbines at times “just because.”
John Howland, a former selectman, spoke up for Mr. Crotty, as did Peter DeTerra, chairman of the Board of Health.
Mr. Crotty was commended for saving the town “millions” in a dispute with SEMASS.
After the meeting, Mr. Espindola said his interest in exploring other firms has nothing to do with Windwise. He said he’s always interested in considering ways to serve the town better.
“I like to look at things and see what the options are and see if there is a better opportunity,” he said.
Mr. Espindola mentioned Mr. Crotty’s failure to inform selectmen of a “missing ballot” in the Board of Health election, the results of which were tossed out by a judge, as one area of disappointment with Mr. Crotty. The ballot was found stuck in a machine after the recount, at the time of the Senate primary.
Mr. Crotty and Town Clerk Eileen Lowney were both criticized for not informing selectmen or the judge handling the case about the discovery of the stuck ballot.
Mr. Espindola said other things have concerned him but that they occurred in executive session so he couldn’t talk about them.
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