Pine Manor College has accused Brookline elected officials of breaking the law when they formulated a proposal to seize land from the college in secret, according to a set of complaints the school filed with the town.
Pine Manor and the town are locked in a public battle over the town’s recent suggestion to seize 7 acres of college land along Heath Street by eminent domain to build an elementary school. The college president said he was blindsided by the proposal and has vowed to fight it.
According to the college’s complaints filed last week, town officials discussed their idea to seize the land by eminent domain in secret, then announced it before the college or residents had a chance to weigh in.
“Proceeding in executive session has disenfranchised members of the Brookline community and divested the Town from the benefits of public participation,” college president Tom O’Reilly wrote.
Also last week, O’Reilly wrote a separate letter to Brookline officials that asked them to seek written permission from now on if they want to access the campus to test, excavate, or otherwise inspect the property.
“I regret having to take this action, but recent events, of which Town officials are aware, make this action and notice necessary,” O’Reilly wrote in the Oct. 6 letter.
The letter was written the day after selectmen held a public meeting last week to present a drawing of what an elementary school would look like built on Pine Manor land. It was the first time O’Reilly had seen the plan, he said.
The selectmen invited O’Reilly to speak at that meeting, but in his letter, O’Reilly said that opportunity “was afforded to me much too late in the Board’s and Committee’s process.”
The Open Meeting Law is a state statute that lists 10 specific scenarios in which public boards and committees may meet in secret, and it lists the protocol they must follow before they may do so.
The college’s filings accuse the selectmen, the School Committee, and the Brookline Advisory Committee 9th School Ad Hoc Subcommittee of violating that law on Sept. 5, 12, 19, and 26.
At each meeting, the town held closed-door sessions in which they appear to have discussed Pine Manor land as a site for an elementary school, the college alleged in its complaints.
Then on Sept. 26, selectmen issued a press release that included the first public mention of the idea to take the Pine Manor land by eminent domain. The town had briefly considered Pine Manor as a site more than a year ago but then crossed it off the list because the college did not want to sell its land and the town deemed eminent domain “hostile.”
In a phone interview on Tuesday, Selectmen Chairman Neil Wishinsky said the board does not believe it broke the law.
“We follow the Open Meeting Law, and there are exemptions in the Open Meeting Law and I don’t believe we violated the law,” Wishinsky said.
In the case of the Sept. 26 meeting, for instance, the college alleged that the town listed litigation as its reason for entering executive session, but according to the state’s open meeting law guide, a lawsuit must be “clearly and imminently threatened” in order to necessitate a private meeting.
Wishinsky said the town attorney, Joslin Murphy, will respond to the college’s complaints. According to the law, the public body has 14 business days to respond. The person who filed the complaint can then appeal the decision to the state attorney general if unsatisfied with the public body’s response.
Three similar Open Meeting Law complaints were filed in November 2015 against selectmen and the school committee, also related to searching for a site for a ninth elementary school. In that case, the attorney general’s office ruled that the boards did not violate the law.
“There’s a time to go public, and there are times you need to gather facts; and the law recognizes that you can have these kinds of discussions in executive session,” Wishinsky said.
Wishinsky called the college’s requests for permission to access the land “totally unnecessary.” No one went on the land, he said.
He said he views this announcement that the town is considering Pine Manor as the beginning of a public discussion, not the end.
“[The college president] is going to have plenty of opportunity to present his case to us,” he said. “It is far from a done deal.”