Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Police Board Not Bound by Meeting Law

The Massachusetts open meeting law does not apply to a board created to review citizen complaints against police, the Hampden County district attorney's office has decided, according to a report yesterday in The Republican newspaper. The opinion issued by Assistant District Attorney Katherine E. McMahon concludes that the Community Complaint Review Board is not a governmental body covered by the law and therefore does not have to post notices of its meetings.

Springfield's mayor created the nine-member board last year to review resident complaints against the police department. The executive order creating the board expressly stated that it "shall not be a board of the city, but a board of mayor." Given this, the DA's office concluded the board serves only as an adviser to the mayor.

I have not seen the DA's opinion letter. If this board is purely advisory, the ruling is probably correct -- even if unfortunate. The open meeting law does not apply to an individual government official such as a mayor, only to committees and boards. If official who is exempt from the law appoints an informal committee to provide advice on a matter within the authority of that official, that committee is also exempt from the law.

This interpretation is based on a 1991 Supreme Judicial Court decision, Connelly v. School Committee of Hanover, that held that a committee appointed by a school superintendent to assist him in hiring a school principal was not covered by the law.
"Of special significance is the fact that the superintendent, because he is clearly not a 'governmental body,' could, by himself, have accomplished the task of screening and interviewing candidates in a closed session, entirely free from the requirements of the open meeting law. This was his independent and exclusive statutory responsibility, ... and the selection committee was assembled merely to assist him in carrying out his responsibility. We see no persuasive reason to hold that an interviewing and screening process, which is exempt from the open meeting law when carried out by the superintendent, should be subject to the law when carried out by individuals informally appointed by the superintendent to assist him. The selection committee does not fall under the statute because it is not a committee of the town of Hanover but a committee of the superintendent."
This outcome nevertheless begs the question: Why not comply with the open meeting law? In other words, even though a committee is not required to follow the law, it is clearly permitted to do so. If the function of this board is to build citizen confidence in the Springfield police department, then shouldn't the board conduct its business in public view? The answer seems easy to me.

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