Friday, August 27, 2010

Video is Smoking Gun in Open Meeting Cases

Journalists and citizens seeking to enforce open meeting laws have a new weapon at their disposal: video. In two recent cases in Massachusetts, open meeting law violations caught on tape forced the violators to admit their mistakes.

In a post here in July, I wrote about the reporter for The Patriot Ledger who recorded the Weymouth Housing Authority board as it threatened to forcibly evict citizens who protested an apparent open meeting violation. It appeared that the board met in secret to select a new executive director.

Thanks in part to that videotape as well as to a series of reports by The Patriot Ledger, the Weymouth Housing Authority later rescinded its pick of a new executive director. The board's chairman explained that the board wanted "to clear up any perception of backroom dealing or nefarious activity."

Now comes a similar incident involving the Board of Selectmen of the town of Wayland. Just minutes before the start of their July 8 meeting, the selectmen huddled to discuss appointments to the town's historic and conservation commissions -- appointments they were scheduled to discuss on the record once their formal meeting got underway.

From their pre-meeting discussion, it appears they are reviewing decisions they'd already made about who would get the appointments -- decisions that are required by law to be discussed in public. Later, in their 0n-the-record meeting, they in fact make the appointments consistent with the pre-meeting discusssion.

Unfortunately for them, the town's public access cable TV station, WayCAM, had already started recording. The selectmen can be clearly heard on the recording discussing the candidates.

Remarkably, when a citizen wrote to the selectmen to complain about the violation, the chairman of the board derided the complaint as "borderline harassment." At the selectmen's meeting on July 26, the board discusses the complaint and dismisses it as unfounded. "It's borderline harassment," the chairman says. "I'm getting a little tired of it."

By its next meeting on Aug. 16, the board had become much more contrite, thanks to having viewed the video. At the Aug. 16 meeting, the board admitted its members had acted inappropriately in the July 8 meeting. In a statement, the board said it was "clear that the four [selectmen] were mistaken in referring to some of the candidates who were being considered for appointment that evening."

Below is a short clip of the selectmen's off-the-record discussion. For a longer video showing part of the July 8 and July 26 meetings, click here. To see the video of their Aug. 16 meeting, click here. See also the report from Wicked Local Wayland: Wayland selectmen admit to impropriety.

Wayland BoS 070810 Pre-Meeting from WaylandVotersNetwork on Vimeo.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Ambrogi,

I believe you owe it to your readers to research both sides of a matter before publishing this column, not merely posting links to media coverage of a story.

Anonymous said...

The above poster assumes that Mr. Ambrogi does not or did not research both sides of a matter or this matter before publishing this column.

What proof or information does the above poster have that Mr. Ambrogi did not research both sides of this matter?

It seems like the above poster is also making an assumption.