Thursday, August 05, 2010

AG Holds First Hearing on Open Meeting Regs

Attorney General Martha Coakley's office today held the first of four scheduled public hearings on emergency regulations to implement the new Massachusetts open meeting law that took effect July 1. Turnout was low. My notes show just six people testified. The scheduled three-hour hearing was over after one hour.

Among those who testified were Rosario C. Malone, city clerk of Waltham; Theodora Eaton, town clerk of Needham and president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks' Association; Michael Yunits, Holbrook town administrator; Allison Amanis, acting executive director of the Commonwealth Covenant Fund; Kevin McCrea, former Boston mayoral candidate and advocate for open government; and Marty Rosenthal, a lawyer and co-chair of Brookline PAX.

Although the hearing's focus was the AG's regulations, most of the testimony focused on dissatisfaction with the statute. Obviously, the AG doesn't write the law, it simply carries it out. Of course, going forward, Coakley could be influential in urging the legislature to make "corrections" in the law.

I won't try to recap all the testimony. but the major points addressed were these:
  • Posting requirement. Clerks remain concerned with the law's requirement that local government bodies post meeting notices in a way that they can be seen by the public 24 hours a day. They call this an "unfunded mandate" in that it may require new technology and more staff time. Oddly, two of the people who testified criticized the regulations for prohibiting the posting of notices on municipal Web sites. In fact, the regulations expressly allow posting on the Web, provided the notice is also posted in a municipal building that is accessible 24/7, such as a police or fire station.
  • Remote participation. The new law authorizes the AG, "by regulation or letter ruling," to "authorize remote participation by members of a public body not present at the meeting location." The AG's regs are silent on this issue. The AG's Open Meeting Law Guide says the AG is considering this issue but that, for now, remote participation is not allowed. Several of the people who testified urged the AG to address and clarify this issue. 
  • Agenda. The new open meeting law requires meeting notices to include agendas. This was not a requirement of the former law. The town officials who testified believe this could be counterproductive.
  • Records retention. Any documents used during a meeting subject to the law become public records and must be retained as such. Several town officials objected that this requirement is onerous. This was surprising, given that the former law had pretty much the same requirement. It makes me wonder whether they'd been ignoring this requirement for years. 
  • Filing of complaints. The AG's regulations say that complaints alleging open meeting violations should, for local government bodies, be filed with the municipal clerk. Eaton, the president of the Town Clerks' Association, contended that this is not in accord with the statute, which says the initial complaint shall be filed "with the public body."
McCrea's testimony raised several questions and concerns about how diligent the AG will be in enforcing the law and about carry-over of complaints under the old law that remain unresolved. He echoed concerns I've raised frequently on this blog that the law lacks teeth and needs to be toughened. 

Rosenthal suggested that the regs should make better use of technology. In particular, he said Brookline has a listserv to distribute meeting notices and agendas to interested citizens and suggested the AG might consider something similar for other government bodies. 

The next hearing is Monday in Worcester. 

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