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BRIDGEWATER

A respite, finally, in town power struggle

Judge’s ruling helps head off confrontation

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / August 7, 2011

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Witnesses to the months-long power struggle between the town manager and fledgling Town Council in Bridgewater are hoping a new beginning is at hand now that a Superior Court judge has clarified their respective roles under the town charter and that the council president - whose relationship with the town manager was particularly thorny - has chosen to step down.

The council was poised last Tuesday to begin the process of removing Town Manager Troy Clarkson. But just hours before its meeting, Brockton Superior Court Judge Robert Cosgrove delivered his interpretation of the town charter that prompted councilors to back off their position and simply reprimand Clarkson for past shortcomings.

Bickering between the council and Clarkson had been ongoing since the nine councilors took their seats in January. A number of councilors were unhappy with him over several decisions he made without first getting council input, such as contracting a study of a subdivision with drainage problems and a more recent study related to use of a strategic tract of land near Route 24.

The feud escalated with the council’s recent enactment of a policy prohibiting the hiring of a town attorney who lives or works in Bridgewater. The policy, effective July 1, meant that current town attorney Mark Gildea, who has held the position for 15 years, would have to go.

Clarkson refused to replace Gildea, saying the council could not legally enact a policy that infringed on his hiring and firing authority. He asked for a court opinion based on the Bridgewater Town Charter. Enraged that Clarkson had taken them to court over the policy, the council considered firing him in July, but postponed action to last Tuesday to allow time for the ruling.

Cosgrove wrote that the town manager is the community’s “chief executive officer’’ under the charter, in charge of hiring and firing municipal employees, and that the council cannot legally enact a policy that would infringe on the town manager’s authority. He agreed with Clarkson that the policy “conflicts with the Town of Bridgewater Home Rule Charter and therefore is invalid and unenforceable.’’

Council President Michael Berolini, whose relationship with Clarkson has been contentious, stepped down at the opening of Tuesday’s meeting, saying the public battling between town manager and council had taken its toll on him and his family. A new president will be chosen at the start of the council’s next meeting. Vice President Scott Pitta has taken the helm for now.

“I think what Mr. Berolini did last night was the right thing to do for the council and the town,’’ Pitta said Wednesday. “There was obviously a strained relationship between him and the town manager.’’

Political pundit Michael Kryzanek, executive director of the Center for International Engagement at Bridgewater State University, who had said he was concerned fighting among municipal leaders was breeding anger and mistrust, agrees. “The judge has the knowledge to clarify the issues of the charter, and the Town Council took a step toward conciliation with its president stepping down,’’ he said.

Bridgewater resident Carlton Hunt, one of a large group who had contacted councilors to express their dissatisfaction, said she and others were going to urge the council to vote in a new slate of officers Tuesday. That became unnecessary when Berolini stepped down. “Hopefully, this is the opportunity to reset and move forward,’’ Hunt said.

Clarkson said he was happy that he still had his job and that the judge had supported his position in the fight over the town attorney. “Clarity on the charter has been provided, and now it’s time to work together,’’ he said.

Town department managers, some of whom attended council meetings to speak on his behalf, had worried about the protracted battle for power, according to Clarkson. “I think now they can breathe a little easier and concentrate on their jobs,’’ he said.

The town manager said he was already working to improve his performance. “At my pleading, the council formed a round table,’’ he said. “I meet with three council members regularly to improve communication.’’

Pitta said Clarkson isn’t off the hook just because the firing process didn’t move forward.

“The letter of reprimand has established a paper trail of issues we have a problem with,’’ Pitta said. “If there are problems in the future, we can say that we tried to reach across the divide, and it just didn’t work.’’

The council’s decision to back off firing Clarkson was far from unanimous. Berolini, Michael Demos, Peter Riordan, and Kristy Colon voted against changing the motion to a motion to issue a letter of reprimand. They were outvoted by Pitta, Peter Colombotos, Tim Fitzgibbons, William Wood, and William Callahan.

Clarkson brought his attorney, Ed Pietnik, to the session.

“I think the way it worked out is better for Troy and the town,’’ Pietnik said.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.