Posts Tagged ‘Open Meeting Law’

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.

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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.

Chuck Turner and open government

November 25, 2008
Dan Kennedy

By Dan Kennedy

Embattled Boston city councilor Chuck Turner emerged this week as an unlikely champion of open government by refusing to allow his colleagues to decide his fate behind closed doors.

Council president Maureen Feeney had called for an executive session to discuss federal charges against Turner alleging that he had accepted a $1,000 bribe in return for his help in obtaining a liquor license. Feeney appeared to be invoking a section in the state’s Open Meeting Law that allows for an executive session in order —

To consider the discipline or dismissal of, or to hear complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, (more…)

Wilkerson and the Open Meeting Law

November 4, 2008
Dan Kennedy

Dan Kennedy

Kevin McCrea, a Harley-riding gadfly and sometime candidate for the Boston City Council, has sent a letter to the Suffolk district attorney’s office about a possible violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law that could be a key to the alleged corruption scandal involving state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, D-Roxbury. (Via Universal Hub.)

According to the FBI, the Boston Licensing Board approved a beer-and-wine license for the Dejavu nightclub on Aug. 15, 2007. McCrea, in his letter, observes that the matter was neither on the docket nor the agenda for that day’s meeting. McCrea is basing his complaint directly on the FBI’s description of what happened that day. According to the FBI affidavit (PDF):

Dejavu’s application for a license did not appear on the agenda that day. (more…)

Circumventing Open Government in Salem

October 24, 2008

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 (more…)

Why the Mass. public records law is a joke

October 23, 2008

By Paul Pronovost

The latest CommonWealth magazine includes a report that, sadly, is not the least bit surprising: The state’s public records law is a joke. Well, that’s my interpretation. Here’s how reporter Colman Herman put it:

“A law designed to shine a bright light on the inner workings of state and local government in Massachusetts is instead leaving much of the bureaucracy in shadows, if not total darkness. A seven-month investigation by CommonWealth revealed that public officials at all levels of government frequently game the Massachusetts Public Records Law, the state’s counterpart to the federal Freedom of Information Act. “

“…Huge swaths of state government are (more…)

Laws shouldn’t shrink with news staff

October 21, 2008

By Richard Lodge

I have some good news and I have some bad news

The good news is that this week the Worcester District Attorney’s Office ruled that the Milford (Mass.) Board of Selectmen violated the Open Meeting Law in July by meeting privately with a Colorado real estate developer who wanted to talk about his proposal to locate a casino along I-495 in the Milford area. Selectmen had closed the doors for an executive session under the exemption that allows town boards “to consider the purchase, exchange, lease or value of real property if an open discussion may have a detrimental effect on the negotiating position of the governmental body with a person, firm or corporation.”

The key point here, and the one upon which the Milford Daily News (a GateHouse Media newspaper, along with the MetroWest Daily News) filed the complaint with the Worcester DA, is that the exemption is meant to let town boards discuss their strategy in possible real estate deals in private, but NOT with the party with whom they might eventually be negotiating. In the Milford case, the developer wanted to (more…)

Law Burns, Legislature Fiddles

October 20, 2008

Robert Ambrogi writes:

Massachusetts district attorneys have slapped the knuckles of at least two more town boards for violations of the open meeting law. I wrote here last week about the Worcester DA’s ruling that the Charlton board of selectman violated the law by meeting in private to evaluate the town administrator. This week, the Worcester DA found a similar violation by the Harvard School Committee, ruling that it violated the law by conducting a significant portion of the school superintendent’s evaluation in private. Not only that, but the school committee kept no written records of the process “so as to avoid public scrutiny,” the DA found, according to a report published by Nashoba Publishing Online. Meanwhile, the Norfolk DA — without expressly finding a violation of the law — told selectmen in Holbrook that they should discontinue meeting in private to discuss a possible lease of town land, according to Wicked Local Holbrook.

The Massachusetts legislature will soon end a session in which (more…)

Public official, private evaluation

October 14, 2008

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 (more…)

Ensuring Democracy

October 7, 2008

By Karla de Steuben

Article V of the Massachusetts Constitution states,

“All power residing originally in the people, and being derived from them, the several magistrates and officers of government, vested with authority, whether legislative, executive, or judicial, are their substitutes and agents, and are at all times accountable to them.”

The sentiment expressed in this article, i.e., that public officials are accountable to the public, is a fundamental principle of democracy. However, if the people do not have easy access to information about the actions of their elected officials, this sentiment becomes an empty platitude.

The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law and the Public Records Law are intended to ensure public access to information about the actions of the state and local government. They are crucial to the ability of the people to be able to hold their government accountable. Their effectiveness matters to the strength of our democracy.

Apart from occasional newspaper stories about violations, however, it is difficult (more…)