Minutes of closed-door meeting reveal maneuvering over Seekonk, Mass. fire chief contract

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By Mike Kirby, editor, The Sun Chronicle, Attleboro, Mass.

The vote was shocking at first.

The Seekonk Board of Selectmen abruptly voted to fire its fire chief, Alan Jack. But then, a matter of days later, the board pulled a 180, rescinding its earlier vote and awarding Jack a three-year contract.

Why? There were no clear explanations from officials, or from the fire chief.

But there’s often a paper trail, in this case the minutes of the meeting held in executive session, or behind closed doors.

State law requires boards to meet publicly except in a few specific situations, but minutes have to be kept. And the minutes of those closed-door meeting must be made available within 10 days if the matter is resolved.

With the fire chief awarded a new contract, we asked for the minutes — and waited. When the minutes did not arrive within the deadline, we wrote a story and an editorial, explaining that the board is in apparent violation. The editorial put it simply: Just what is the Seekonk Board of Selectmen hiding?

The suspicions grew stronger when the board finally supplied what it labeled “redacted” minutes. Through another source, however, we were able to obtain a draft of the original minutes and found out what the board had been hiding — that selectmen had conversations with a retired chief to serve as interim chief before Jack had even been fired.

The entire incident should serve as a lesson to both local officials and journalists.

For the officials, it’s important to remember that this is the public’s business. Only on rare occasions should the public be excluded from it.

And a red flag should always go up when officials try to keep something secret. Journalists should always ask: Just what are they hiding?

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