Political watchdogs in Wareham won a court order to block what they say is the town's misuse of $1.1 million in Community Preservation Act funds. But it came a bit too late.
By the time a Brockton Superior Court judge issued a restraining order last Friday, the town had wired the money to its intended recipient, resident Barbara Deighton Haupt. The town owed her the $1.1 million for the beachfront acreage it took from her, but did not fully compensate her for, in 2003.
The citizens group, Taxpayers for Full Disclosure, had argued that it was improper to use funds from the Community Preservation Act to pay Haupt, and the state Department of Revenue agreed. CPA money is earmarked for three uses - open land or historic preservation, and affordable housing - and towns are expected to voluntarily heed those guidelines.
In asking the Brockton court last week for a restraining order to stop the pay ment, the citizens group had hoped to delay payment and buy some time to explore alternative payment methods.
When it discovered Monday that the payment was already made - well before the Nov. 16 payment deadline - the group decided to give up its fight, at least for the moment, rather than pursue a lengthy and costly court battle.
"We have legal options, but they are time-consuming," said John Decas, a local businessman and member of Taxpayers for Full Disclosure. "We had been hoping to stop payment for the short term to force the selectmen to look at other things."
Town officials are remaining closemouthed about the transaction. Wareham Board of Selectmen chairwoman Brenda Eckstrom confirmed the receipt of the temporary restraining order but refused to say whether the money had already been spent, citing "pending litigation." Town Administrator John McAuliffe declined to comment as well. McAuliffe said he expected that if the subject were discussed by selectmen at all, it would be done behind closed doors in executive session.
Decas said his group had been reluctant to bring action against the town and, in retrospect, took too long to obtain the restraining order. The group learned from Haupt that she had been wired the money last Wednesday.
"Unfortunately, we acted too slowly," Decas said.
He expressed surprise that officials paid the amount before the Nov. 16 deadline. "You don't pay $1.1 million until you have to," he said. "We calculated it, and the town lost about $3,000 in interest by doing that."
Attorney Philip Beauregard, who was retained by the taxpayers group to obtain the restraining order, said the early payment by selectmen raises serious questions.
"What does it mean when they pay it two weeks ahead of time?" he said. "It was an overt attempt to avoid the restraining order."
The town's legal agreement to pay Haupt the $1.1 million stemmed from a US Distict Court jury ruling earlier this year. The jury said the Swifts Beach land that the town took from Haupt by eminent domain was worth about three times the $450,000 it paid her for it.
The town and Haupt, in a resulting settlement, set the time table for payment. Voters at a Special Town Meeting on Oct. 22, after more than two hours of debate, had authorized the use of the preservation money to pay the debt.
But Taxpayers for Full Disclosure argued the use was illegal, since the land was not initially purchased with Community Preservation Funds.
Town officials agreed they had been told by the state Department of Revenue that paying the settlement with the money was a "nonpermissible use" of preservation funds, but that DOR had no authority to pursue the town - a fact DOR later confirmed for the Globe. Eckstrom termed the use "improper" but not "illegal" in her opinion.
The temporary order to stop use of the CPA money was one of two restraining orders the Brockton District Court granted to the citizens group last Friday.
The second order, still in place, prevents the town Community Preservation Committee from putting a conservation restriction on the deed of the Swifts Beach land.
Decas said that action will leave open the option of selling a portion of the property to help replenish the Community Preservation Fund. A restriction would make the property less attractive to a prospective buyer.
Decas said that once Town Meeting voters used up the Community Preservation Fund for the settlement on Oct. 22, they proceeded to authorize about $1 million in short-term loans to cover the cost of several Community Preservation Projects on the warrant.
"We're disappointed we were too late to stop the money from being used, but we also realize we made a point and put the spotlight on CPA funds and how they are used, not just for our town but for other towns," Decas said.
"The money should be used as it was intended, not like an ATM machine. Then it's just a back-door way of overriding Proposition 2 1/2."
Christine Wallgren can be reached at CLWallgren@aol.com.