Open government agency favors bulletin boards over the Internet for meeting notices


By Karla J. de Steuben, attorney and creator of the Massachusetts Campaign for Open Government, a project of Common Cause Massachusetts

One of the new changes to the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, effective July 1, will require municipal clerks to make notices of meetings accessible to the public 24/7.  The Attorney General, through the newly organized Division of Open Government , may “prescribe or approve alternative methods of notice where … such alternatives will afford more effective notice to the public.”  The most effective way to make any public record, including a meeting notice, available to the public 24/7 is to post it on the Internet.  Yet remarkably the Division of Open Government appears to have come to the opposite conclusion, mostly based on inaccurate facts.  A number of city and town clerks are urging the division to change its position.  Let’s hope that the division listens to them.  

Here are the reasons why it should:

First, the law requires that meeting notices be accessible 24/7.  Anything posted on the Internet is accessible 24/7.  So, anyone anywhere with an Internet connection will be able to read, download, or print meeting notices at any time, if the notices are posted online.   

Second, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics from October 2009, 81.7% of individuals in Massachusetts live in a household with Internet access, and that percentage will only continue to increase.  (The same survey found that 73.5% of individuals in the United States now have Internet access in their household, not 62% as stated by the Division of Open Government.)  The remaining 18.3% who do not currently live in a household with Internet access most likely have neighbors or family members who do have access or they have a public library that has access.  So, anyone who wants to obtain a copy of a meeting notice will be able to do so relatively easily if the notices are posted online.  

Third, Common Cause Massachusetts, which reviews local government websites annually,  found that as of January, 2010, at least 303 out of 351 municipalities already post some records on their municipal website, and the number could be as high as 326.  So, almost all municipalities in Massachusetts already have the capability to post documents online.  (The Division of Open Government misinterpreted Common Cause’s findings in its Request for Comments, incorrectly stating that “at least half of all Massachusetts cities and towns are not currently in a position to post their meeting notices on their websites.”  This is simply not true.)            

Fourth, and perhaps most compelling, requiring that meeting notices be posted on municipal websites as a way to comply with the new law may result in other public records being posted online as municipal clerks discover how easy it is to do.  In essence, it may have the effect of making local governments even more open.  

No other method listed by the Division of Open Government in its Request for Comments  will be as effective in providing easy and quick access to meeting notices and other public records as posting them on the Internet, now and in the future.  (Anyone who thinks that using the local cable channel is a good way to provide meeting notices to the public has either never watched local cable or has a lot of time on their hands.)  Let’s hope saner, more informed heads prevail at the Division of Open Government on this issue.


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