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Malden stadium commission violated open meeting law making deal with pro football team

Posted by Marcia Dick  February 14, 2013 11:52 AM

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Malden's Stadium and Athletic Field Commission violated state open meeting law by holding seven meetings over the last six months without notifying the public, providing an agenda, or offering minutes for public view, city officials said Wednesday.
 
On some of those occasions, they had discussions leading to a now-controversial decision to unanimously approve an agreement to rent Macdonald Stadium to the Boston Freedom Fighters  — a team in the start-up National Spring Football League owned by Malden businessman Bill Spadafora  — and to allow the sale of beer during its six-game home schedule.

The city is now in discussions with the attorney general’s office over what if anything must be done to correct the open meeting violations. Meanwhile, the Freedom Fighters — unhappy with the way the process is playing out — said they are looking at venues other than Malden for their home field.

The agreement between the stadium commission and the team has drawn criticism from city councilors, who passed a resolution urging the Licensing Board to reject a proposed liquor license for the team. Ward 2 residents, where the stadium lies, also have objected to not being included in discussions.

"It was like a secret society, where no one got to see it," Chris Murphy, a Ward 2 resident said Wednesday.

Murphy, along with a handful of other residents of the neighborhood attended Wednesday's stadium commission meeting at the Malden High School Library to express their displeasure with the commission's decision to allow beer to be sold at the Freedom Fighters’ games.

"When you get alcohol involved, I think it's going to create a problem," Murphy said.

The commission's secretary, Gene Pinkham, submitted his resignation Wednesday, but Mayor Gary Christenson, who sits on the commission, said it was his office's responsibility to ensure the meetings were properly posted, he said.

"This was totally on me, this is my fault," he said.

The failure to follow open meeting guidelines came to light in early January, when Steven Ultrino, the Ward 2 representative to the City Council, requested minutes from commission meetings. Kathleen Manning Hall, Christenson’s chief administrative officer,  found the meetings' minutes were never approved, nor were meetings posted publicly. The meetings in violation were held Aug. 1, Aug. 28, Aug. 29, Sept. 12, Nov. 5, Jan. 17,  and Jan. 23.
 
Ultrino said he had been unable to answer questions from constituents, who had heard rumors about plans at the stadium, because the meeting information wasn't public.

"There's a reason I wasn't in the loop, because no one was in the loop," he said.

He said the process failed to involve the public, and he believed it had hurt his reputation around the neighborhood.

"I'm getting beat up, I was put in a very awkward position," he said. " . . . It's tough for me to show face in [my] ward."

Manning Hall said the discovery was "a big wake-up call," but that nothing was done intentionally.

"We made some mistakes, but there was never any intention to deceive anyone," she said.

On Wednesday, the commission went about trying to correct its mistakes, retroactively going through old minutes and approving them. Manning Hall said she had contacted the attorney general's office, and the commission was following the advice she received.

But that wasn't good enough for Ultrino, who said the process was flawed, or Ward 3 City Councilor John Matheson, who called for the commission to hold a meeting where commissioners re-vote on all items considered during meetings where proper public notice was not given.

"Simply ratifying minutes, at this juncture, does not cure the defects," Matheson said.

Christenson said he would go back to the attorney general's office and confirm that the commission actions Wednesday were adequate.
 
But reconsidering the commission's vote on a contract with the football team wouldn't be necessary to halt the agreement since the city hasn't signed any paperwork yet, and the sale of beer still needs the approval of the city's Licensing Board. The meeting where the commission ultimately voted on the agreement, held Jan. 31, was properly posted to the public.

"If we're reading this one wrong, we can still move in another direction," Christenson said.

Christenson defended the commission's Jan. 31 vote, saying members felt pressure from the Freedom Fighters to give an indication that the city was supportive of the team, or face losing the team to another community. Though it was a subject never raised during that meeting, Christenson said he believed the commission would not have approved the agreement if it didn't know there was "another layer" of government remaining for final approval.

Ultrino voiced his displeasure with the agreement and lack of public process at the Jan. 31 meeting and asked for a public hearing, which is scheduled for Thursday Feb. 21 at the Malden Housing Authority building at 89 Pearl St., the same street where the stadium is located.

Christenson said he still supported bringing the team — and its sale of beer — to Macdonald Stadium. The agreement is only for one year, and if it's a success, it could be continued long-term, he said. If it doesn't work out, it will have a minor impact since the team only plays six home games per season. The 50-man team, which will develop players for potential spots on NFL rosters, is coached by crew of ex-New England Patriots, led by Patrick Pass.

"I view this as low-risk, high reward," Christenson said.

But he said his opinion could be swayed, depending on sentiment at the public hearing.

"February 21st will really be the tell-all," he said.

In a statement issued Feb. 6, after the City Council's vote against the sale of beer, the Freedom Fighters said the league would begin looking at other potential host cities.

"At this time, the league is examining its options to leave [Malden] and has reopened discussions with the other competing cities," the statement said.

The team's first home game is scheduled for April 13. 

Jarret Bencks can be reached at bencks.globe@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter @JarretBencks.


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