Sunday, October 19, 2008

As Open Meeting Law Burns, Legislature Fiddles

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 it had its best opportunity in years to pass meaningful open meeting law reform. Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford worked hard to put together a substantive bill. The AG had crafted her own bill. Rep. Cabral had brought a range of interest groups to the table to try to work out their differences -- from municipal lawyers to media groups to public interest groups. But the bill seems sure to die due to disinterest among legislative leaders.

In these waning days of the session, the legislature has found the time to debate an official state novel, pass a law freeing golf courses to sell alcohol anywhere on the course, designat a rock in Fall River as the state's official glacial rock, exempt certain antique-car seats from the seat belt law, and authorize Lynn to license a florist to sell alcohol. But it is unable to find the time to address the urgent need to clarify and strengthen the open meeting law.

A Worcester Telegram editorial this week said that public officials should easily understand the law's clear mandate: "to give the public maximum access to public decision-making. Excluding the public from decision-making -- via executive sessions, e-mail exchanges, chats at the local coffee shop or through an elaborate pre-evaluation procedure -- is a violation of the letter and spirit of the law." If only it were that easy. Unfortunately, whether negligently or intentionally, public officials routinely violate the open meeting law. Unless and until the legislature acts to clarify the law and give it some teeth, the violations will continue.

No comments: