Public official, private evaluation

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By Dan Kennedy

The lengths to which some public officials will go to get around the plain language of the Massachusetts open-meeting law can be pretty impressive.

The law clearly states that an executive session may be heldto discuss the reputation, character, physical condition or mental health rather than the professional competence of an individual.” In other words, a public body may not conduct a performance evaluation behind closed doors.

But that didn’t stop the Charlton selectmen from trying. According to the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, whose complaint was recently upheld by the Worcester district attorney’s office, the selectmen thought they’d gotten around the law by having each of them submit written evaluations of Town Administrator Robin Craver.

Those evaluations were compiled in a summary that was read aloud at an open meeting. No in-depth discussion. No public debate. No wonder District Attorney Joseph Early ruled that the selectmen violated the law.

In a letter to the selectmen, Assistant District Attorney Patricia Smith put it this way:

[T]he Legislature did not intend to allow Boards to shield their deliberations regarding performance evaluation of high-level employees from public disclosure by utilizing a process of written evaluations that are not made available to the public.

One problem with the open-meeting law is that violations are rarely punished. Smith, for instance, called the Charlton violation “unintentional” and recommended simply that the documents be discussed in public. With sharper enforcement teeth, though, public officials would have an incentive not to break the law in the first place. (Via the indispensable Robert Ambrogi.)

Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a frequent commentator on media issues. His blog, Media Nation, is online at Media Nation

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