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.
"That would be like going to a town and saying, 'Who are your selectmen in this town?' And the town saying, 'I'm sorry, that's not public information,'" Merz said.
Merz called the state's public records division on Tuesday, was told the names were indeed public and was eventually given the information from the board later that day.
When The Salem News in 2007 requested access to the two most recent years of the board's meeting minutes — documents that cities and towns routinely post on their Web sites — the board again enlisted its lawyers.
A Boston law firm responded 18 days later, advising it was "reviewing the meeting minutes requested to determine which portions of the minutes might be exempt from disclosure pursuant to the Open Meeting Law and the Public Records Law."
The minutes arrived two days later — nearly three weeks after the initial request was made.
"They act like a private agency that's not funded by public money," Middleton Town Administrator Ira Singer said.
Markel in Ipswich is also bothered by the stark contrast between communities, which are facing sharp cuts and potential layoffs, and the Essex retirement board, whose budget will grow more than 5 percent next year.
"I don't know of any community in Essex County where that's happening," he said.
The budget increase is particularly surprising given that the board will no longer manage retiree investments. The board last month voted to transfer control of its funds to the state's Pension Reserves Investment Trust.
Town leaders also criticized the board's lack of transparency in its budgeting. The board's entire budget is printed on a single 8.5-inch-by-14-inch piece of paper and lists one line for employee salaries.
"If I submitted a budget like that to the Board of Selectmen here, I'd get fired — and they'd have every right to fire me," Markel said. "That's just unacceptable for a public agency."
And while the employee salary line item will decrease next year, about 49 percent of the board's operating budget will still be spent on salaries, benefits and retirement costs for office staff and stipends for board members.
That's leaving town leaders like Markel wondering what exactly taxpayers are getting for their money.
"It's not serving the employees or retirees or communities and towns that are in the system," Markel said. "We need to change the governance and change the personnel."
Staff writer Steve Landwehr contributed to this story.
Staff writer Chris Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com.
Legal & Consulting Expenses20092010
Lundregan Law Offices$35,000$80,000
Kearney, Donovan & McGee$72,000$72,000
Moschella & Winston$10,000$0
Boston Benefit Partners$10,000$10,000
Segal Consultant Fees$79,000$39,500
Segal Actuarial Fees$15,000$15,000
Wagner Law Group$0$2,000
Dwyer and Collora$0$100,000
Laredo and Smith$0$50,000
5.55 percent increase
Source: Essex Regional Retirement Board