Circumventing Open Government in Salem

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By Karla de Steuben

According to the Salem News, Governor Patrick met in a closed meeting with the Salem Mayor, members of the Salem City Council and School Committee, and other municipal officers on Wednesday.  The purpose of the meeting was for the Governor to hear the concerns of the local officials and to discuss the Governor’s proposed budget cuts and the future outlook.  Similar meetings were held in Fall River, New Bedford, and Quincy.  Apparently, the Governor only invited a minority of the Council and the School Committee to the meeting in an attempt to avoid having to comply with the Open Meeting Law.

This story is troubling.  First, it appears that the Governor or his staff thought about the Open Meeting Law because they made an attempt to circumvent it by only inviting a minority of each elected board.  In other words, this was not simply an example of a government official being clueless; it is an example of a government official wanting to keep the public in the dark. Second, it appears from the editorial that a majority of the City Council attended anyway.  So, even if only inviting a minority of the Council was a legitimate way to circumvent the Open Meeting Law, it failed in its implementation.  Finally, even if only a minority of the Council members attended the meeting, unless they were instructed not to communicate in any way to the absent members about what took place at the meeting and they complied with this instruction, this situation is not any different from the situation in which council members engage in serial phone calls or meetings to discuss a topic that will come before them.  And we know how that turned out for the Boston City Council.

Hopefully, the Salem News will pursue this issue.

(Cross-posted at the Massachusetts Campaign for Open Government Blog.)

Karla J. de Steuben is an attorney and the creator of the Massachusetts Campaign for Open Government, a project of Common Cause Massachusetts. She serves on the governing board of Common Cause Massachusetts and on the board of the New England First Amendment Coalition.

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