AG’s office rules chair of S. Hadley fire district wrongfully removed resident from meeting

The South Hadley Fire District 1 station at 144 Newton St.

The South Hadley Fire District 1 station at 144 Newton St. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 01-08-2024 2:46 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — The state attorney general’s office has sided with a resident and former member of the Fire District No. 1 Prudential Committee, who filed a complaint saying that he was unfairly removed from a meeting last March after he continued to interject during a presentation.

During that March 8 meeting, chairman Bruce Perron warned resident Michael Wozniak three times for interrupting the meeting to voice disapproval about the committee’s failure to submit the budget in time. Wozniak was joined by other members of the public yelling similar comments, but the meeting record shows Perron singled only him out. When Wozniak mentioned he “unfortunately” served on the Prudential Committee with Perron in past years, the chair asked the fire chief if an officer was available to escort Wozniak out.

“It was embarrassing obviously,” Wozniak said. “I didn’t want to have to deal with some police officer or the fire chief having to physically escort me out. It was bad enough what [Perron] did and then to have to go through that. The last thing I need is to get arrested for speaking out at a public meeting.”

In his complaint, Wozniak wrote “this was an illegal act that violated by civil rights along with my First Amendment right of freedom of speech.”

Wozniak claims his past disagreements with Perron fueled the chair’s decision to remove him because no one else was threatened with removal, even though other members of the public were interrupting the meeting before and after Wozniak left. Wozniak served on the Prudential Committee for two years, and said he left after a series of disputes and interpersonal issues with Perron.

Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Carnes Flynn wrote in her determination that a committee may remove a person from a meeting if he or she continually interrupts proceedings after multiple warnings from the chair. However, Flynn advises this as a last resort, only to be used if a member of the public refuses to listen to the warnings or lashes out with threats, violence or abusive behavior. Wozniak’s interruptions were brief and he complied with the chair’s warnings, so the level of interruption did not qualify for removal, Flynn said.

Flynn concluded that the removal of Wozniak inhibited a resident from accessing the meeting, and ordered immediate and complete compliance with Open Meeting Law. Any similar violations in the future can indicate intentional violations of the law.

“I overstepped,” Perron said in response to the complaint. “And in that, what I did was I made a public apology. It’s a recorded public apology and that’s what [Wozniak] was asking for.”

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Wozniak confirmed that he did ask for a public apology, but he requested in his complaint to have Perron removed from his position. The attorney general’s office rejected that part of the complaint, and Perron remains the chair.

“He did it before the meeting even started so it wasn’t on the public record. He can’t even pronounce my name right, and I was on the (committee) for two years,” Wozniak said. “To me, that’s no apology.”

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.