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Medford council reappoints leaders in contentious vote

Posted by Jarret Bencks  January 11, 2013 11:38 AM

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Medford city councilors managed to figure out how to elect its leaders and resume their duties in a special meeting Thursday night, after being unable to do so two days earlier and bringing city business to a halt.

Robert Maiocco was reelected as president of the council and Fred Dello Russo reelected vice president Thursday with two councilors abstained from voting.

The vote had been frozen Tuesday night after a series of events that lead councilor Robert Penta to invoke "section 22," a bylaw that ends debate on a subject until the next council meeting. This left the council, without anyone elected to lead it, unable to hold a regular meeting.

On Thursday, Penta said he believed that the leadership positions should be rotated annually. This year will be the third consecutive term for Maiocco as council president.

"I think its time to move this around and I think everyone deserves to have this chance to be up there," he said.

Councilor Breanna Lungo-Koehn said that may be true, but it was not the right time for the debate. A license for a new Stop & Shop grocery store planning to open Friday was scheduled to be considered on Tuesday. If the council failed to resolve its inability to appoint leaders, it could jeopardize the store's opening, she said.

"We have to get down to business," she said. "We have Stop & Shop here, who needs to open their doors tomorrow."

After Maiocco and Dello Russo were sworn in, the council resumed the duties they were supposed to attend to on Tuesday, including granting Stop & Shop a common victualler license for a store on Salem Street.

The issues with the council began on Tuesday, when Councilor Michael Marks, citing a recent exchange he had with a state Ethics Commission staff attorney, said anyone nominated for officer positions should recuse themselves from voting because the president and vice president positions come with a salary increase.

In response, councilor Paul Camuso said if there were four nominees and they all had to recuse themselves because of conflicts, there wouldn't be enough members remaining to hold a meeting. This would result in the nominees being allowed to invoke the "rule of necessity," which allows legislators to vote in spite of conflict of interest in cases where the body could not proceed without their vote, Camuso said.

Camuso asked for City Solicitor Mark Rumley's opinion on the rule Tuesday, but he refused because Marks had already gone to the state Ethics Commission.

On Thursday, Rumley agreed to weigh in. He said after conferring with City Clerk Ed Finn, he agreed to ask the Ethics Commission about the rule and whether it applied in this case. According to the advice he received from the commission, the councilors could use it in order to proceed with the vote and resume city business, Rumley said.

Penta refused to accept Rumley's explanation.

"I don't think I'm going to buy it the way you're saying it," Penta said.

Rumley responded: "I mean this as a friend, whether you buy it is irrelevant to me."

Marks accused Rumley of being "underhanded" by going to the Ethics Commission without being asked to do so by the council. Rumley said he questioned whether it was any more underhanded than Marks's decision to get an opinion from an Ethics Commission attorney, then announce it in "blindsided fashion" during a meeting where they were supposed to elect officers.

In the vote, Maiocco, Camuso, Dello Russo and Rick Caraviello all nominated each other, then invoked the rule of necessity in order to cast votes for president. Each voted for Maiocco, along with Lungo-Koehn, while Marks and Penta refused to vote.

As the votes were being announced, Penta could be heard from his chair behind the rail.

"This is a joke," he said.

Following his nomination, Maiocco personally apologized for the council's actions earlier in the week, and vowed to serve the best interest of the city.

"I'm just grateful to be a city councilor and, along with my colleagues, we're going to do the best we can for the city," he said.

Dello Russo was reappointed vice president along the same voting lines, except he abstained from voting for himself.

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

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