The Wanderer - Mobile Edition


Selectmen Defend Donor's Anonymity

Marion Board of Selectmen

By Jean Perry

The Marion Board of Selectmen on November 23 had a hard time wrapping their minds around why Finance Committee member Peter Winters would jeopardize an annual $25,000 anonymous donation to Sippican School by trying to force the school administration to publically reveal the donor's identity.

The special Wednesday morning meeting was held for the sole reason of authorizing the Town to engage in litigation to defend its position that the donor's anonymity could and should remain protected, and selectmen voted unanimously to allow Town Counsel Jon Whitten to defend the town's refusal to release the donor's name after Winters filed a request under the state's Public Records Law.

School Committee member Christine Winters, Peter Winters' wife, back in 2015 voted against accepting the $25,000 donation based on the principle that the donor's identity should not be kept hidden from the school committee, lest there be a "quid pro quo" scenario tied to the donation.

"Whether it's legal or not is a separate issue," stated Winters during the January 7, 2015 School Committee meeting, calling for transparency and the release of the donor's name, at least to school committee members only.

The $25,000 sum, which is used as a principal's discretionary fund to pay for things such as field trips, Chromebooks, and other items not included in the school budget, has been an ongoing donation to the school for four years now.

The fact that anyone would want to jeopardize this annual donation to the school, said Selectman Steve Gonsalves, is "baffling."

"You open this Pandora's box, and you're going to see people stop donating," Gonsalves said. "Anonymous is anonymous. I'm totally at a loss for words.... This doesn't make any sense in my opinion whatsoever."

Town Administrator Paul Dawson said that last year a similar request for the release of the donor's name was filed, and now the superintendent's office has requested authorization from the selectmen to have town counsel file complaints seeking judicial relief of the public record and protecting the donor's identity.

Dawson said the matter is about public policy and the school administration's and the town's right and duty to protect an anonymous donor's identity, adding that a number of public schools, colleges, and entities have legally accepted anonymous donations, some even in the millions of dollars, according to Dawson.

"Mr. Whitten has indicated that there's a lot of case law to support the assertion by the town that the information is protected," said Dawson.

"I'm totally baffled by this," said Gonsalves. "This makes absolutely no sense."

Dawson said the legality of how the money has been spent has never been the issue, rather simply the donor's anonymity.

"The issue is whether the town has the right to protect the donor," said Dawson.

Selectmen raised concerns over the cost of litigation brought on by Winters' request, but Dawson said the financial cost would be minimal. However, time and resources would have to be spent defending the town's position.

"I think we owe it to the school committee, the administration, and especially the donor that we move forward with this," said Board of Selectmen Chairman Jody Dickerson.

"I'm at a loss of words," said Gonsalves.

"I'm like Steve," said Selectman Stephen Cushing, "I'm at a loss. What is the reason for this? If there's nothing ... then obviously they're trying to embarrass the donor or something."

Dickerson made the motion to authorize the litigation, followed by Gonsalves' reply, "I absolutely second that."

The next regular meeting of the Marion Board of Selectmen is scheduled for December 6 at 7:00 pm at the Marion Town House.

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