Judge finds for selectmen in Barron v Kolenda (but clarifies board can’t prohibit public comments solely to avoid criticism)

The Park Central trial isn’t the only case residents have filed against Town officials in Superior Court. The Board of Selectmen’s packet this week includes news on the case Barron et al v Kolenda et al. A memo from the court found in favor of the Town and current and former selectmen named in the lawsuit.

As I’ve previously posted, the lawsuit against the Board of Selectmen as officials and individual alleged that selectmen infringed on resident Louise Barron’s civil rights. The suit also alleged that former Selectman Dan Kolenda inflicted emotional distress and defamed Barron.

The Worcester Superior Court judge dismissed or denied those lawsuit counts as lacking merit or falling short of requirements under the law.

An additional count also claimed a violation of Open Meeting Law. According to Judge Shannon Frison, the alternate path that Barron also pursued for the OML violation through the Attorney General’s office barred her from bringing that matter to the court. According to Judge Frison’s memo, without Barron’s involvement on that count, the court lacked jurisdiction to rule on the merits for her co-defendants.

The complaint also asked for a declaratory judgment against the Board and the Town. That did result in a noteworthy declaration from the court about the Board’s public comment policy.

Judge Shannon Frison cited case law that even if the plaintiff’s arguments lack merits, “there must be a a declaration of the rights of the parties”. Therefore, she issued a declaration on two major points.

Citing context in a prior paragraph of the policy, Frison declared that the board’s prohibition against “rude, personal, or slanderous remarks” was constitutional as long as it is used to:

maintain order and decorum or to prevent disruptions of the Board’s meeting.

However, Judge Frison specified in a second point:

The Board may not prohibit speech under paragraph 3 of the Board’s “Public Participation at Public Meetings” policy based solely on the viewpoint or message of a speaker or the Board’s desire to avoid criticism.

The plaintiffs had sought a jury trial. On January 4th, Worcester Superior Court held a Hearing for Judgment on Pleading. At that time, the judge took the matter under advisement. On March 8th, she issued her ruling, in favor of issuing a judgement on behalf of defendants. (Copies were signed and mailed on March 9th.)

You can read the entire March 9th memo from the court here. You can read the amended complaint here and the Board’s public comment policy here. For more background on the case, click here.

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