Thursday, July 30, 2009

Two Distortions of the Open Meeting Law

How's that old saying go about the devil quoting the Bible for his own ends? The same, it seems, can be said about public officials and the open meeting law, as two items in the news today illustrate.

First is a story from the Worcester Telegram about the Dudley Board of Selectmen's decision to reprimand the town's fire chief for supposedly violating the open meeting law. Did he violate the law by holding a secret meeting? No, the selectmen claim he violated the law by being open about what happened at a meeting. Seems the selectmen insisted in meeting in private to discuss the chief's contract, even though the chief wanted the meeting to be public. After the meeting, he committed the unpardonable sin of revealing some of the selectmen's concerns about his performance. For this, he has been reprimanded.

There may be reasons why the chief should not have spoken in public about what transpired at the meeting. But let's not blame the open meeting law. The law is designed to promote openness, not prevent it. In no way, shape or form did the chief's public comments after a meeting held to discuss his contract constitute an open meeting violation.

Today's other misreading of the open meeting law comes via Wicked Local Arlington, which reports that the School Committee has voted to hold a private meeting with the interim superintendent to decide whether to interview her for the permanent position. When asked what possible justification the School Committee might have for such a private meeting, the chairman said "there's a gray area" that would allow this. Apparently, that's a new exception to the open meeting law, because it sure does not fall under any exception I've read in the law.

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