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Do the math: Legal costs can add up; Issue of stipend, training payments for ex-fire chief.

Byline: Brian Lee

SOUTHBRIDGE - The town could wind up paying more for legal costs than it did for supplemental payments to a former fire chief, the Telegram & Gazette has learned through a public records request to Town Hall.

The Town Council, which scrutinized a $3,500 emergency medical technician stipend and other payments for training attended by former chief Leonard N. Laporte, paid $4,154 for related opinions and services from town counsel Kopelman & Paige.

Officials await a bill for a conflicting legal opinion from Murphy, Hesse, Tommey & Lehane of Quincy, hired in September as special counsel on the former chief's wage review.

As to why it is taking so long to get a bill, Finance Director Karen S. Harnois said lawyers tend to be slow about sending invoices.

The council had voted the EMT stipend removed from the fiscal 2007 budget. Kopelman & Paige said the payment had required an appropriating vote.

Consequently, councilors in December suspended Town Manager Clayton R. Carlisle for one week without pay for authorizing the payment.

Weeks later, Mr. Carlisle resigned, effective March 15. Mr. Laporte resigned amid the scrutiny in September.

Mr. Carlisle, who is on administrative leave, had argued the action was consistent with his authority under the town's charter, personnel rules and regulations and state law.

In November, Katherine A. Hesse said that all supplemental payments over the past two years to the former chief were within the scope of state law. Ms. Hesse and Joseph T. Bartulis appeared before councilors on Nov. 28.

But at that meeting councilors determined that Mr. Carlisle hadn't told the Quincy law firm "the whole story" about the budget vote against paying the stipend. Mr. Carlisle authorized the stipend payment after councilors voted against it.In a recent interview, Councilor Robert F. King said he wants Mr. Carlisle to pay for services rendered by Ms. Hesse's firm. Mr. King argued that Mr. Carlisle provided an incomplete picture of the council's vote against paying the stipend "to cover himself."

Mr. King acknowledged that the Kopelman bill was "a lot of money," but it would have been offset had his goal of recouping the funds materialized.

Despite the assertions, Mr. King said he wished that Mr. Carlisle had remained in the job, although he said he didn't appreciate Mr. Carlisle's attacks on several current and former councilors in a recent news report about his resignation. Councilor Ronald J. Chernisky said he was against using lawyers for the wage review because officials themselves could have worked to set the record straight. He said the expense was irrelevant to the investigation's finding.

Councilor Kenneth M. O'Brien said the conflicting advice pointed to the need to hire a local lawyer for day-to-day counsel, with special counsel hired as needed.

"Such an approach would allow us better budgetary control in relation to legal costs," he said.

In the meantime, the council's General Government Subcommittee is working toward a consensus on what the policy should be for granting overtime and stipends to salaried town employees. The general intent is to hold the line on stipends except when clearly justifiable, said Mr. O'Brien, the subcommittee's chairman.

The policy would make exceptions for Department of Public Works employees gaining licenses directly related to their ability to perform their jobs, as well as police lieutenants working details, which comes about because of the union contract, Mr. O'Brien said.

"We have to exempt them because they had to be paid at the same rate as regular police officers," Mr. O'Brien said. "Otherwise we'd be running into a conflict with the union contract, and that's the last thing we want to do."

Mr. O'Brien said he hadn't been an active participant in Mr. Laporte's wage review and refrained from commentary because the issue pre-dated his membership on the council.

NAME: SOUTHBRIDGE TOWN COUNCIL; SOUTHBRIDGE FIRE DEPARTMENT
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 14, 2008
Words:638
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