Archive for the ‘Open Meeting Law’ Category

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

June 3, 2010

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.

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

June 3, 2010

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?

Quest for “Marty,” pizza dinner add up to big legal bills for Southborough, Mass.

May 24, 2010

By Richard Lodge, editor, MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, Mass.

What started as a quest by Southborough town officials to identify an anonymous online critic named “Marty,” evolved into a secret probe of eight town employees who met after work at a pizza restaurant last September.

Early in May, Southborough selectmen publicly exonerated eight present and former employees, including Town Administrator Jean Kitchen, Assistant Town Administrator Vanessa Hale, former Town Planner Vera Kolias and Public Works superintendent Karen Galligan. The eight were investigated after selectmen received a complaint from the former assistant town clerk about comments allegedly made about then-interim Police Chief Jane Moran at an after-work pizza dinner at Uno in Westborough last September. Moran was subsequently named permanent police chief in November.

The complaint reportedly involved comments made “in the presence of non-town employees who the subject of the comment has to deal with and also in the presence of a person who was competing for a position.”

The complaint to selectmen spawned the probe, which entailed the town hiring outside lawyers. The probe, in turn, prompted several of the town employees under investigation to hire their own lawyers.

The employees first learned they were under investigation when they were called to an executive session with selectmen on Oct. 22. 2009. At that closed-door meeting, interim Chief Moran accused the employees of trying to undermine her, according to several people at the meeting.

On May 10, Hingham attorney James Lampke, who was hired by the town to look into what was discussed at the gathering at Uno, released the report of his investigation, exonerating the eight employees. Days earlier, after a four-hour closed-door meeting, selectmen announced the eight employees had been cleared after the probe.

The MetroWest Daily News has filed a public records request for minutes of that executive session since, under the Open Meeting Law, it would appear the reason to keep the records of the discussion secret has passed.  The request for minutes was hand-delivered on Friday, May 14, and the town has ten business days to respond.

The Daily News also filed a public records request with Southborough selectmen seeking a breakdown of legal expenses for the town relating to the probe. Assistant Town Manager Vanessa Hale told the newspaper it could see redacted copies of the legal bills, funneled through Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano, but the charge would be more than $200.

“Town policy dictates that the charge for a records request is based upon the hourly rate made by the lowest paid employee capable of completing the requested task,” Hale told the Daily News. “Since no one other than Aldo (Cipriano, the town counsel) can redact the bills, the charge you’re seeing is what he charges per hour for his work.”

Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office said this week an attorney will be assigned to look into the newspaper’s complaint about the cost cited for copies of the legal bills.

The newspaper’s request is for legal bills from Cipriano and two outside lawyers, Barry Bachrach and Lampke, who investigated the pizza dinner discussions and an earlier investigation to uncover the identity of “Marty,” an online poster who Southborough selectmen said wrote inaccurate comments on a local blog regarding the hiring of Moran as police chief.

 In April, the Daily News reviewed redacted copies of Bachrach’s legal bills for the unsuccessful search for “Marty’s” identity, which showed the attorney billed the town more than $3,000 for the work. Copies of the bills were obtained by Southborough resident Al Hamilton, who made his own public records request for bills related to the “Marty” investigation.

The Daily News also obtained a copy from a Personnel Board member of an invoice from Lampke. That bill showed charges to the town, just for the month of February, of $2,315 for “personnel issues.” But until copies of all legal bills are made available to the newspaper, it’s impossible to report the total cost of outside legal work to Southborough taxpayers.

Somerville, Mass. streaming Board of Alderman meetings

May 20, 2010

Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone

By Joseph A. Curtatone, mayor, and John Connolly, chairman, Board of Aldermen, Somerville, Mass. 

Last week Somerville became the first city in the state to stream its Board of Aldermen meeting live on the Internet. While that has a certain wow factor for those of us involved, we’re keeping our focus on where this technical step forward can lead us. 

One of the challenges municipal government has faced in recent decades is getting citizen participation. People lead busy lives and that makes it difficult to stay on top of what’s happening with your local government. And we’re competing with international, federal and state issues for the sliver of time people can devote to staying plugged into what’s happening in the world around them. 

Board of Alderman Chairman John Connolly

If we don’t make ourselves more accessible we risk losing the citizen input that is vital to properly doing our jobs as elected officials. We feel this even more acutely in Somerville, where approximately 42 percent of the population is age 21-35. A big slice of our population is relatively new to our city and unfamiliar with the issues we face inside the city government. Yet they are wired. If we want to bring those younger adult residents into the fold, we have to connect with them on their terms. 

Fortunately we’re doing more than just streaming the aldermen’s meetings. The meetings are available on demand after their conclusion. They will also be segmented by topic, allowing online viewers to go straight to the portions of the meeting that most interest them. So our residents will be able to watch the meetings from any location where they can get an Internet connection, whenever they want, and only the parts of the meetings they wish to watch. 

Our hope is we can build from here. We have opportunities to link the archived video with our own content (media- and document-based). Social media tie-ins seem like a natural next step. And hopefully this evolves in ways we haven’t anticipated. That will mean we’ve got brand new conduits into our community, which is what we really want to build here. 

 

 

 

Meeting minutes show ex-New Bedford school chief planned to “sit on her butt,” collect check

May 13, 2010

By Charis Anderson, reporter, The Standard Times, New Bedford, Mass.

After almost two tumultuous years, former New Bedford School Superintendent Portia Bonner abruptly resigned her position on April 9.

The resignation came just days after a highly charged closed-door meeting of the School Committee during which Bonner locked horns with Mayor Scott W. Lang, the committee’s chairman ex officio.

The committee discussed and accepted Bonner’s resignation – and reached consensus on whom to appoint as the next superintendent – during another executive session meeting on April 9.

I had reported on the outcome of both meetings, but not in any detail about what had happened during those meetings, and in order to do so, I needed copies of the meeting minutes.

I prepared a public records request that I submitted to the mayor’s office on May 13, asking for the executive session minutes from both meetings. I argued that as Bonner’s resignation had been publicly announced, the stated need for executive session protection had ceased and the minutes should be released immediately.

Although there was some initial reluctance to make the minutes public, the School Committee did approve and release the minutes within two weeks of my request.

The minutes were revealing in two ways. First, they captured the extent and nature of Bonner’s outburst during the initial meeting: After being told by the mayor that he would not vote to extend her contract, Bonner replied that “she would sit on her butt and collect a paycheck for her last year and spend time looking for a new job,” the minutes stated.

The minutes from the second meeting were interesting for what they revealed about the manner in which the new superintendent was chosen. The mayor put forward a name, and the committee agreed with no discussion.

 I’m still reporting on new developments in this story, and having the minutes out there has been critical to my – and the community’s – understanding of how the roots of the story developed.

Coalition of lawmakers seek “functional democracy” in Mass. House

May 11, 2010

By State Rep. Thomas M. Stanley (D-Waltham, Mass.) 

A group of state representatives have come together to restore the balance of power in the membership in the Massachusetts House and ensure that issues receive both proper consideration and debate.  Our goal is to make the House a more open and transparent place so we have proposed a number of reforms to combat increasing power consolidation in the hands of the leadership in the House.

Over the past few years, power has been consolidated in the hands of the small leadership team, leaving the rest of the representatives increasingly at their mercy. This near-complete consolidation of power has been intensifying over years, making it more and more difficult to legislate on behalf of our districts and constituents. Our group knows that this is not the way to run a government, and has proposed a number of reforms to combat increasing power consolidation in the hands of the leadership in the House. These reforms will:

Ensure that home-rule petitions can be discharged from the Rules Committee in a timely fashion;

Make the state budget process in the House more transparent, and make the House operating budget specifics accessible to all members;

Provide a leadership election and committee appointment process that distributes more power to the members;  and

Provide legislators with greater control of the operating budgets for their offices and eliminate or narrow legislative exemptions to the open meeting law, public records law and purchasing standards.

We want the House to become a functional democracy. We want each bill deliberated in the committees and referred to the floor based on merit, where it will be fully debated.  A representative form of government is supposed to give us all a voice at the table so the interests of our constituents are adequately represented, but when all power is put in the hands of one person, it corrupts that process and opens the door to abuse.

To learn more, search for “Representatives for Reform” on Facebook.  Join us and contribute to the open and honest discourse to make real reforms within the House and improve the governance of Massachusetts.

 

AG’s office takes over Open Meeting Law enforcement in Mass.

May 5, 2010

By Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and Robert Nasdor, chief of the Attorney General’s Division of Open Government  

The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law was first enacted in 1958 to ensure that all meetings of local government boards and committees are open and accessible to the public and the media.  Under the landmark Ethics Reform legislation enacted in 2009, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office will assume responsibility for all enforcement of the law in order to allow for more consistent enforcement and to provide for more training and education of municipal and county officials.

Our office recognizes that many Open Meeting Law violations are the result of a lack of awareness or understanding of the law, and so our new Division of Open Government will focus on providing training and educational resources — both online and in-person — to public officials who are subject to the law.  We’re developing a comprehensive website that will provide updated Open Meeting Law guidelines, links to the law and the Attorney General’s Office’s regulations, links to advisory opinions and hearing decisions, and other educational materials and resources. We’re also planning regional training and will be available to speak to associations representing municipal officials, city managers, city solicitors/town counsel and city/town clerks, and other officials subject to the Open Meeting Law, as well as the news media.  Our goal is to be a recognizable and readily accessible resource for officials, the news media, and the public. 

One key change in the law is that the Attorney General’s Office will have the authority to issue binding interpretations of the Open Meeting Law, something that the district attorneys did not have.  We’ll be able to help officials avoid violating the law by providing formal and informal guidance to municipalities and other officials before action is taken.  For example, we will provide written opinions applying the Open Meeting Law to a specific set of facts, and we will be able to respond to questions and concerns over the phone. 

We also plan to issue procedural and substantive regulations that will help to fill in any gaps in the Open Meeting Law and respond to issues that arise. If you have questions or suggestions for us as we move forward on implementing these changes, please contact the Division of Open Government at openmeeting@state.ma.us.

R.I. school board sued over controversial executive session

April 26, 2010

By Steve Brown, executive director, Rhode Island ACLU

Never underestimate the creativity of public bodies seeking to conduct meetings in private. That’s one lesson we’ve learned in seeking to halt a disturbing trend in Rhode Island of unlawful private meetings to discuss legal-related matters.  For the second time in six months, we have filed an Open Meetings Act lawsuit against a school committee for violating the law’s provisions governing the holding of executive sessions.

The latest suit, filed against the East Providence School Committee, alleges that the committee illegally met in private in September 2009 to discuss what it called a “Public Comment Lawsuit.” However, that lawsuit doesn’t exist. In fact, when we filed an open records request to obtain copies of any documents related to this “lawsuit,” the school committee responded that no documents existed. What they most likely secretly discussed was a letter that the ACLU had sent,  seeking background documents on the committee’s “public comment” policies, which had been a source of great community controversy. Their most recent policy, which had caused an uproar, required people desiring to speak at committee meetings to submit a formal written request at least one week in advance. Somehow, seeking information about the policy was enough to turn things into an imaginary “lawsuit” against it.

Last August, we filed a similar suit against a closed meeting that the Barrington School Committee held to discuss the merits of a mandatory breathalyzer policy for students attending school dances. Like East Providence, the school committee relied on the “litigation” exemption to meet in private, when at the time of the executive session there was no litigation pending or threatened and there was not even a specific policy in place that could have been challenged through litigation. Instead, the school committee argued that a letter the ACLU had sent raising policy concerns about breathalyzer testing constituted a “threat” of litigation authorizing a closed meeting.

In both cases, school committees have stretched what was supposed to be a narrow exemption – allowing public bodies to discuss necessary legal strategy – into an exception that swallows the rule. Recently, a judge denied Barrington’s motion for summary judgment, and we are hopeful our suits will ultimately end this trend of treating any curiosity or criticism about a policy into “potential litigation” that can be discussed in secret.

Maine group uses DVD to advance open government

April 20, 2010

By Mal Leary, president, Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, Augusta, Maine

The Maine Freedom of Information Coalition is celebrating a decade of promoting and protecting the public’s right to know with a DVD dramatizing some common requests under the state law.

The series of skits collectively titled “Accessing Government Information in Maine” is a limited tutorial to help guide the public through Maine’s open records and open meetings laws and provide links for more detailed information.

The DVD was produced through a grant from the National Freedom of Information Coalition and narrated by former Gov. Angus King. It has been distributed to every public library in the state, including high school libraries.

Through a series of skits, sometimes humorous, that are based on real-life situations an individual gets a good idea of how the law works. The DVD explains how the law applies to public records and meetings in town offices and at schools and police departments, as well as state agencies.

The skits also include suggestions about how to handle situations when someone believes they have been denied access to a public record or meeting in violation of the law. The DVD points out some common situations where records are confidential by law and why they are confidential.

The skits are available through the MFOIC website and have been edited into a half-hour TV program being aired on cable channels throughout the state. The site also has a frequently asked questions section and tips on writing a request for public records and links to other Freedom of Access Act resources.

The site lists candidates for the legislature that took a pledge in the 2008 elections to support open government and has the full reports of the public records audits that MFOIC has undertaken to show both the strengths and weaknesses in the state law.

Ethics Commission responds to complaint from former Foxboro Reporter editor

April 20, 2010

Jack Authelet, former managing editor of the Foxboro Reporter, has provided the NEFAC Report Blog with a copy of the state Ethics Commission’s response to his complaint.  Read Authelet’s original post here.