School funding lawsuit widens, puts JFC members at risk
Unless a judge dismisses the Joint Finance Committee from the lawsuit brought against the town of Warren by the Bristol Warren Regional School District, those that serve on the JFC can expect to receive a court summons as early as next week. The suit came after the Town of Warren refused to pay their share of the school budget increase for the 2012-2013 school year, instead opting to flat fund with the same amount as in the prior year.
The JFC, while made up of town officials from Bristol and Warren, functions to set the school department’s annual budget, but doesn’t legally fall under the authority of the towns or the school department. Therefore, the town’s insurer, Interlocal Trust, says that the JFC is not covered under its policy. As a result, JFC members are responsible for their own legal defense. On Wednesday, Nov. 28, the JFC held a meeting where they discussed the impending litigation.
Despite the attempts from Warren’s town solicitor, Anthony Desisto, and Bristol’s solicitor, Michael Ursillo, to get the school department’s solicitor, Andrew Henneous, to exclude the JFC from the suit, he did not, and the lawsuit was filed with the JFC named as “interested parties” out of “an abundance of caution.”
The JFC, being excluded from the protection of the Interlocal Trust, heard from Bristol town solicitor, Michael Ursillo, on Wednesday, who offered to represent the JFC as its attorney.
Thomas Gordon, Warren’s town manager and JFC member, said he is aware that Mr. Ursillo already discussed the lawsuit with Mr. DeSisto, giving the impression that he was already representing the JFC.
“Who asked you to represent the JFC?” Mr. Gordon said.
Mr. Ursillo said that any conversations he had on behalf of the JFC were not billable, and only in an effort to resolve the situation.
“The JFC needs to be represented by someone because you are being sued,” said Mr. Ursillo. “It doesn’t have to be me.”
Mr. Gordon expressed his concern that he was not comfortable discussing the action involving the JFC , since he is also named as a defendant in the suit against the town of Warren.
“I’m not going to vote on this because I’m a defendant in this case,” Mr. Gordon said.
After several minutes of discussion among JFC members in an attempt to untangle the complex mix of plaintiffs and defendants in the suit, a vote was taken to continue the discussion at a subsequent meeting.
“Who do we belong to?” said Warren Town Council president and JFC member Chris Stanley. “It’s sort of suing yourself.”
In July 2011, the JFC requested that the school department recognize it as an arm of the school committee. According to school superintendent, Melinda Thies, that request was denied based on the advice of legal counsel.
“I don’t know why they did not,” Mr. Ursillo said of the decision.
“In my opinion we’re part of the school department and they’re going to have to figure out how to pay for it,” Mr. Barboza said.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the vote to continue the discussion was approved 4-0 by Mr. Barboza, Ken Marshall, Mary Parella and Antonio Teixeira who represent Bristol on the JFC. All three members who represent Warren, Mr. Gordon, Mr. Stanley and Cathie Tattrie, abstained.
In an effort to remove the JFC from the suit against the town of Warren, attorneys representing the town of Warren will ask the court to dismiss them from the filing. That request will be heard on Dec. 12.
“If you’re dismissed, obviously you’ll be all set,” Mr. Ursillo said.
If not, however, once the members of the JFC are served, they will have 20 days to retain legal counsel and respond.
Interim chair approved
Prior to adjournment, the JFC sought motions to select an interim chairman, since Mr. Barboza will not resume the seat. After Mr. Stanley’s motion to nominate Ms. Tattrie was seconded and a vote was taken. Among the chorus of aye votes came a sole nay vote, in jest, from Ms. Tattrie.