Monday, July 11, 2005

Legislative committee takes up open meetings bills

The Massachusetts legislature's Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight heard testimony today on six bills filed by the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association to toughen the enforcement provisions of the state's open meetings laws.

The committee, chaired by Sen. Dianne Wilkerson (D-Boston) and Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral (D-New Bedford), heard testimony by me, as MNPA executive director, and by media lawyer Peter J. Caruso of North Andover, who serves as counsel to the MNPA.

Several members of the committee expressed support for the bills. Rep. Cabral said his position on open meeting law reform may be even stricter -- he would like to see elimination of some of the statutory exceptions. Rep. Michael E. Festa (D-Melrose), House vice chair of the committee, said that as a former school committee member in Melrose, he had seen officials skirt the law. "I think the legislation makes perfect sense," he said. Rep. Marie J. Parente (D-Milford), said that she supports these bills because the open meeting law cannot be effective if there are no penalties for its violation.

The six bills -- H. 3517, H. 3518, H. 3519, H.3619, H. 3620 and H. 3621 -- would amend the open meeting laws to:
  • Make it a misdemeanor for an official to knowingly and intentionally violate the law, punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 for a first offense and not more than $2,500 for subsequent offenses.
  • Authorize courts to impose a $500 civil fine against officials who attend meetings in violation of the law.
  • Authorize courts to award attorneys' fees and costs in actions to enforce the law.
  • Authorize courts to impose a $1,000 civil fine against state bodies that violate the law, in the same way that the law now authorizes fines against local bodies.
The committee is not expected to act on the bills until September.

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