By the Book

Alan Seewald recalls what one former town moderator is reported to have said about that remarkable institution known as Amherst town meeting.

“He said that if someone ran into the hallway screaming ‘fire!’ you’d have five people asking for a definition of ‘fire,’ and another five people trying to form a committee to make sure that we included every definition of ‘fire.’

“That’s Amherst — that’s what we love about it and that’s what some hate about it,” continued Seewald, who, as the community’s town counsel for the past seven years and assistant town counsel for the decade before, has had to represent the town in a highly charged, often litigious environment made even more challenging by the presence of UMass and its 20,000 students.

And he’s very thankful for the opportunity.

“It has taken me places that the normal, small town practitioner would never get to see,” he said of municipal law in general, and his Amherst assignment in particular. “I’ve been to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, the SJC (Supreme Judicial Court), every trial court except the Juvenile Court, and I’ve been to state agencies that most people never get to.

“I’ve had a varied and multi-dimensional practice,” he continued, “because municipal law is one of those areas where you touch on nearly every aspect of the law — contracts, tort civil rights cases, municipal finance, land use, personnel, all of it. It’s given me an opportunity to have a practice that’s never boring.”

Indeed, there is both a quality and quantity to the legal workload for the town of Amherst, said Seewald, a partner in the firm Seewald, Janikowski & Spencer, PC, and the latest subject in BusinessWest’s ongoing Attorney Profile Series. He noted that, in recent years, those with strong opinions — and there is no shortage of them in this intellectual and very liberal community — have seemingly acquired greater determination to translate their words into legal action.

“What you’re seeing is an entrenchment that you didn’t see years ago,” he said, speaking from two decades of experience. “When I first started here in the ’80s, I think people were more apt to state their position, press their position, and, if their position didn’t win the day, move on to the next issue; today, I think people are finding it harder to move on — and positions fester.”

That was certainly true in the famous, or infamous, case of the town’s new downtown parking garage, an initiative that survived five separate lawsuits to block it and took several years to bring from town meeting vote to reality.

To successfully represent the town and its employees in this climate, Seewald, who is also town counsel for the Worcester County community of Westminster, says he must separate policy, or politics, from the law.

“Debate in Amherst is spirited, it really is,” he explained. “My formula for success in representing the town has been to always call it as I see it and not get involved in the political process,” he explained. “I have to treat everyone in town with respect and dignity and not get drawn into the political fray.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Seewald talked about the challenging yet rewarding work in municipal law, and also about handling legal duties in what some call the ‘People’s Republic of Amherst.’

Liberal Interpretation

This is a town that has been Seewald’s home for nearly 30 years now. He attended UMass in the late ‘70s — earning a degree in Theater Arts — and “never left,” as he put it.

After graduation, he worked several different jobs before enrolling in Western New College School of Law. As a first-year law student, Seewald did some work in the UMass Legal Services Offices, where he spent considerable time advising students in civil rights cases against the Amherst Police Dept. It was while handling such work that he met Bob Ritchie, an attorney in Amherst who was then town counsel and the individual representing the police officers in such matters.

Upon graduation from WNEC, Seewald would eventually joined Ritchie as an associate in a firm then known as Ritchie & Ennis, and became a partner two years later. He also became assistant town counsel in January, 1987, beginning what has become a two-decade-long stint of service to the community.

His firm, meanwhile, now boasts three partners — Seewald, Bob Spencer, and Debra Jankowski — and an associate, Kristine Bodine. It is a general practice with several specialties, including real estate, generally handled by Spencer, trusts and estates, handled by Jankowski, and civil litigation and municipal law, which is Seewald’s realm.

In addition to his work for Amherst and Westminster, an appointment he assumed in 2003, Seewald has also acted as special counsel, representing a host of communities on issues from ranging from sewer moratoriums to landfill expansions. He also represents individuals in cases against communities other than Amherst and Westminster. Often the clients are developers trying to advance commercial and residential projects through the bureaucratic process. Meanwhile, he also represents neighborhood groups and other constituencies that might oppose such initiatives.

His portfolio of work on both sides of the fence has enabled him to establish reputation — and a growing practice — in a field, municipal law, he says has undergone some dramatic change over the past few decades, making it more complex and thus more specialized.

“State laws apply to big towns and little towns alike, and it’s become quite complicated,” he said, citing measures on everything from procurement to conflict of interest. “It takes someone who has a particular concentration in this area of the law to really do it right.”

He said work as a town counsel involves not only representing a community when claims are filed against it, but also “preventative maintenance,” as called it, to keep a town and its employees out of harm’s way.

This means frequently telling appointed and elected officials things they don’t necessarily want to hear — such as Seewald’s recent advisement to conduct recent interviews for the town manager’s position in open, rather than executive, session.

“People love policy and process here,” he said. “I stay out of policy and try to tell boards and try to tell politicians what the range of their discretion is — what they’re allowed to do and what they’re not allowed to do.”

Case in Point

As he described his work as town counsel in Amherst, Seewald started with the obvious: “There’s never a dull moment here.”

Elaborating, he said the town poses several somewhat unique challenges for its legal representation. For starters, there are the colleges — Amherst and Hampshire — and the university, which is a small community unto itself.

“Obviously, having a young, mobile population can sometimes be inconsistent with the stable family neighborhoods that we like,” he said. “But I think the town and the university have come together in recent years better than they have in the past.”

As an example, he cited the apparent end of one infamous Amherst tradition, the so-called Hobart Hoedown, a spring party in North Amherst that had turned ugly earlier this decade; the 2003 event ended with a riot in which 15 police officers were hurt. Ten individuals, many of them UMass students, were later indicted on a number of charges.

“That’s one example of the town and university coming together and working on issues and common problems,” said Seewald, noting that there has not been a hodown the past two years. “We owe a lot to the colleges; they do present us with a lot of challenges, but they also contribute greatly to the tremendous quality of life we have here.”

Preservation of that quality of life is at the heart of what some see as an anti-business, anti-development mindset in Amherst — Seewald believes perception is not exactly reality on that issue — and cases like the town’s long-delayed parking garage.

“We had people who, for some very legitimate reasons, thought this was not appropriate policy,” he said of the project, the six town meeting warrant articles to revise or rescind the initial approval, and the various unsuccessful lawsuits filed to stop it, involving everything from the acquisition of easements to the town exceeding set appropriations.

Opposition to the garage is an example of the “entrenchment” he described earlier, and also a model for how he approaches his work as town counsel.

“My approach to that was the same as my approach to everything else in town,” he said. “As far as I was concerned, the legislature had spoken and my mission was to effectuate the vote of the legislative body in town — town meeting — which said, ‘build a garage.’

“I think I’ve survived in this town because no one knew whether I personally supported the garage or not,” he continued. “And if were to ask me, I wouldn’t tell you, because it was none of my business; the legislature spoke and my advice to the town was to build the garage.”

Fast Facts:

Attorney: Alan Seewald
Firm: Seewald, Jankowski & Spencer, P.C. (East Pleasant St., Amerst). Also, town counsel for the communities of Amherst and Westminster.
Education: Juris Doctor: Western New England College, 1985; Bachelor of Arts: UMass Amherst, 1980
Phone: (413) 549-0041; E-mail:[email protected]

Final Arguments

In other words, it was another case of calling it as he sees it.

That’s how Seewald has crafted a solid reputation in the field of municipal law, and how he’s managed to represent the town of Amherst for nearly 20 years.

As he said, it’s an assignment that provides more variety — and less boredom — than most lawyers, and most town counsels for that matter, will ever experience.
And there’s no debating that.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]