Friday, June 26, 2009

Ethics Bill Weakens Open Meeting Law

The Massachusetts legislature yesterday unanimously approved a major ethics bill and Gov. Deval Patrick last night indicated he would sign it. Few members of the public realize that contained within this bill is a major overhaul of the state's open meeting law. Ironically, for a bill that was intended to shore up ethics and accountability in government, the open meeting portions actually make the open meeting law harder to enforce in one material way.

Before I explain, let me first say that several aspects of this bill represent a step forward. Most significantly, it will consolidate enforcement of the open meeting law within the Attorney General's Office, creating a new Division of Open Government. Under prior law, enforcement of local cases was handled by the county district attorney and of state cases by the AG. This resulted in a lack of uniformity in interpretation and application of the law.

Under this new law, the AG will have the authority to investigate and hold hearings on complaints alleging open meeting violations. If the AG finds a violation, she will have the authority to issue various remedial orders. If the public body fails to comply with the AG's order, the AG can file an action in Superior Court to compel compliance. The law preserves the right of private citizens to bring their own actions for enforcement, independent of the AG's office.

Other commendable features of this law include:
  • Express clarification that a meeting can take place through "an oral or written communication through any medium, including electronic mail."
  • Express clarification that "preliminary screening" for purposes of filling a job vacancy ends once the public body is provided with "a list of those applicants qualified for further consideration," thereby requiring all subsequent interviews to be conducted in public.
  • Creation of a five-member open meeting law advisory commission, composed of the House and Senate chairs of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, a designee of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, a designee of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, and a designee of the AG.
  • Stronger mandates for education of public officials about the open meeting law.
  • Annual reporting by the AG on open meeting law enforcement.
So what's not to like? The problem with this bill is that the legislature failed to address the most significant shortcoming of the law, which is its lack of teeth. In fact, on this issue, the bill actually makes the law even weaker.

The MNPA -- for which I serve as executive director -- has pushed for some six years now to add two components to the open meeting law -- penalties on public officials who violate the law and attorneys' fees awards for private citizens who bring lawsuits to enforce the law. As the law now stands, a public official who violates the law faces zero consequences. The body that violates the law can be subject to a fine, but not the individual members. This means that government officials can brazenly violate the law and let the taxpayers pay any penalty that results.

Forty-two states authorize some form of penalty - either civil or criminal or both -- for violations of the open meeting law. In 38 states, the civil fine or criminal penalty is imposed directly against the government official who violates the law. In 21 states, it is actually considered a crime for a public official to violate the law.

This new bill creates no new penalties and weakens the one penalty that the law formerly had. The former law authorized a fine of up to $1,000 against the board or commission that violated the law (but not its members). The new bill changes that to require proof that the board's violation was "intentional." This is an almost impossible hurdle to overcome. Humans have intent, boards do not. How does one prove the intent of a board? To make matters worse, most open meeting violations occur in secret. How is evidence of intent to be found in secret, closed-door proceedings?

The bill also leaves private citizens with no right to collect costs and attorneys' fees for actions to enforce the law. Forty-two states authorize plaintiffs in these cases to recover their costs and 40 authorize them to recover attorneys' fees.

Ironically, even as the full legislature was voting to pass this bill yesterday, the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight was holding a public hearing on open meeting and public records reform. Passage of this bill yesterday need not be the end of the discussion about open meeting reform. The Joint Committee can recommend further modifications and fine-tuning of the bill. At a minimum, the committee should recommend elimination of the word "intentional" from the bill. Those familiar with the history understand that this word came into an earlier version of this bill as a typo and should have quickly come out. Perhaps the committee will go even further and recommend that, once and for all, the open meeting law be given some actual teeth.

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