Thursday, September 03, 2009

One Town's 'Secret Government'

In all my years of tracking open meeting cases in Massachusetts, this one is clearly in the running for the prize for most outrageous. Reporting in The Salem News, writer Steve Landwehr describes the selectmen in the town of Hamilton as operating "a near 'secret government,' with selectmen privately discussing a wide range of personnel and policy issues that are not exempt from the requirements of the Open Meeting Law."

Exhibit No. 1: A series of secret meetings stretching over three months to discuss what the public should be told about two flat-screen TVs in the town's new public safety building. A rumor wase flying around town that the TVs were evidence seized by police in a criminal investigation. Even though the rumor was true, and even though the selectmen were warned that they should not discuss the issue in private, they continued to do so. It would be 18 months before the public would learn the truth -- and only then from an independent investigator.

In another example, selectmen repeatedly met privately to discuss various allegations of misconduct involving a police officer, without ever informing the officer. The open meeting law explicitly requires that discussions of an employee's "professional competence" be conducted in an open meeting. An employee's "reputation" and "character" may be discussed in a closed session, but only after notifying the employee and allowing the employee to attend the executive session and be represented by counsel.

The Salem News report describes other secret meetings in Hamilton. All tolled, it shows what appears to have been a flagrant disregard of the law.

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