Thursday, December 31, 2009

SJC Rules in Key Open Meeting Case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today issued its ruling in a key open meeting law case, District Attorney for the Northern District v. School Committee of Wayland. The SJC ruled that the School Committee violated the law when it met in a closed session to discuss the performance evaluation of Wayland's superintendent of schools and when it exchanged private e-mails regarding the evaluation in advance of the meeting.

In so ruling, the SJC sides with the position taken by the district attorney and by the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association in an amicus brief which I co-authored together with Peter J. Caruso.

The ruling is significant for three reasons:
  • It affirms that discussions of a government employee's "professional competence" must be conducted in public.
  • It affirms that an exchange of e-mails among the members of a public body can constitute "deliberation" and therefore violate the open meeting law.
  • It clarifies a seeming conflict between the open meeting law and the public records law. While the discussion of an employee's performance evaluation must take place in an open meeting, once the evaluation is reduced to a written evaluation document, that document need not be made public.
The School Committee had argued that the evaluation was a prelude to contract negotiations with the superintendent and therefore was exempt as a strategy session in preparation for negotiations. But the SJC said that there was no evidence that the committee discussed strategy.

This is an important ruling for affirming the right of the public to know how their local officials are performing in their jobs. The public has a right to know when a local official is performing well or performing poorly.


patricia wright said...

I am so happy I found this site. I am an attorney in Melrose and have been constantly trying for years to have our School Committee comply with the law. The list of violations are endless and continue twice a month with each meeting.

The revised law is truly disgraceful but perhaps decisional law will put back the lack of teeth. The problem is bringing these cases to court. Who's going to take them? Is there any hope of revisions prior to the July 2010? Is there any group I can participate in that is petitioning for revisions?
Thank you
Patricia M. Wright

Maryin Chavez said...

In this case whether School Committee of Wayland violated the open meeting law when the met in a closed meeting to discuss Wayland's superintendent evaluation it was ruled that they did violate the open meeting law. The School Committee failed to comply by the rules of the open meeting law when they exchanged private emails concerning the meeting and the discussion of the superintendent. If the meeting was to discuss the evaluation of the superintendent's contract negotiations then theres no need to send private emails. And there should have been notification of the meeting to all explaining reasons for having a closed session. In addition, whether the meeting proceeded as a closed session, the minutes and discussion should have been made public, excluding the private information that can not be disclosed. I support the judge's ruling in this case.