High court ruling in Turner case could change local rules

Mike Deehan, Special to the Reporter
Feb. 1, 2012

An upcoming case before the state’s highest court, stemming from the Boston City Council’s removal of convicted former Councilor Chuck Turner, could alter how city and town governing bodies regulate their own membership. After Turner was found guilty of accepting a bribe and lying about it to federal investigators in 2010, the City Council invoked a rule to remove Turner from the panel for violating his oath of office.

At the center of the court battle is whether the City Council had the legal authority to remove Turner when they voted to vacate the District 7 seat in Dec. 2010.

Turner, whose case is scheduled to be heard Monday before the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, argues that the Council’s rule allowing the removal of a member for violating the oath of office conflicts with a state law that specifies that convicted elected officials are to be removed from their offices only after being sentenced. Turner was convicted of accepting a $1,000 bribe and lying to federal investigators in Oct. 2010 but he wasn’t sentenced to three years in federal prison until Jan. 2011.

“No, they don’t they do not have the authority at all. Straight up and down, they do not,” Chester Darling, the attorney representing Turner, told the Reporter last week.

According to Council President Steve Murphy, the council based their decision on the legal opinion of the city’s corporation counsel, which found that the body did have the authority to remove a sitting member if they found that member in violation of their oath of office. District 8 City Councillor Michael Ross was the president at the time of Turner’s removal.

“We were being told by the corporation counsel that we did" have the authority, Murphy said. “Their opinion was that we were within our legal rights.”

It was the vote to remove Turner that Darling says set off a number of violations to the city charter, state constitution and federal statutes.

After Turner was first arrested and indicted on bribery charges, then-Council President Maureen Feeney stripped Turner of his committee chairmanships.

“They did everything they could. He was removed from committees. That was as far as they could go to punish him,” Darling said.

Beside delivering a legal loss to Turner, a court ruling holding up the council’s rule about removing its own members could affect how each of the Commonwealth’s 351 cities and towns deal with removal of sitting members. According to Darling, an affirmation of the panel’s authority to remove a sitting member form office could create scenarios where local legislative bodies could resist the will of voters.

Councilor Charles Yancey, who is not named as a plaintiff in Turner’s case and voted against Turner’s removal, said he is concerned about the precedent that could be set by the case if the City Council prevails.

“City Council could choose by its own authority who is allowed to continue to serve,” Yancey said, “It’s a very dangerous precedent.”

According to Murphy, no matter who the court sides with, the council will fall in line with the decision.

“If the courts decide we didn't [have the authority], we'll uphold the law,” Murphy said.

Murphy defended the vote to remove Turner, saying the honorable thing for a councilor “convicted of a crime would be to step aside.”

“We were either going to vote for Chuck Turner, who had been convicted, or we were going to vote for the integrity of the city of Boston,” Murphy said.

At the time, Mayor Thomas Menino told reporters that he wanted Turner to resign and if he refused, the City Council could remove him.

Darling charged that corporation counsel, which works for the mayor’s office in addition to representing the City Council, made their decision based on pressure from Menino. “I think [the City Council] were misled by the corporation counsel,” Darling said.

Menino’s office did not offer comment, saying the case is ongoing.

“The mayor doesn't interfere in internal matters over here,” Murphy said. Murphy said he believes Menino’s call for Turner’s removal or resignation was an attempt to convince the councilor to step aside.

As for Darling’s claim that the corporation counsel misled the City Council, Murphy said “there was no such divided loyalty on this” between city councilors and the mayor’s office, and therefore the corporation counsel’s opinion was not conflicted.

“I don't question the motives of the city's corporation counsel, that's a tough line to take," Murphy said.

Murphy said he is disappointed in Darling for pursuing Turner’s case, saying he is “personally disappointed that he would pick this fight” and that the attorney would “inject himself into this thing to try to put the City Council through a ringer.”

“He should have stayed up in New Hampshire,” Murphy said.