, Salem, MA

Local News

December 24, 2009

Cash for lawyers boosting budget

The Essex Regional Retirement Board plans a 5.55 percent budget increase next year — a spending spree it blames on the growing number of inquiries from the press.

The board plans to hire three new law firms next year and boost its legal spending by 60 percent. The projected $150,000 increase in legal bills means that about 27 percent of the board's $1.35 million budget is expected to be spent on lawyers and consultants next year.

"It's all because of the media attention this office has gotten in the past year," Chief Operating Officer Lilli Gilligan said earlier this week.

Attempts to reach Gilligan and Executive Director Timothy Bassett to elaborate yesterday were unsuccessful.

But the move shines a spotlight on the board's insistence on using lawyers to review nearly all requests for information — even for basic documents like meeting minutes — from both the press and the towns that fund the board's budget.

"They've been stonewalling attempts by town administrators and managers and the press for documents that are public," Ipswich Town Manager Robert Markel said. "No doubt a fair amount of these legal fees are for discussing, literally, what they can do at a minimum. They've been wholly uncooperative."

On Sept. 30, Ipswich Town Treasurer Kevin Merz e-mailed Bassett asking for the names and districts of everyone serving on the board's Advisory Council. (Merz is running for a seat on the retirement board, which is chosen by members of the Advisory Council. He also requested information on election procedures.)

The board turned the request over to its lawyers. On Dec. 17, Merz received a letter from the board's legal counsel denying the request for names. In the letter, the board's lawyers cite state laws that exempt public agencies from disclosing the home addresses and phone numbers of officials — even though Merz's e-mail never requested that information.

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