Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Does A Public Official's Blog Violate the Open Meeting Law?

Daily Hampshire Gazette reporter Ben Storrow has an interesting piece today involving the issue of whether blogging by a public official can violate the open meeting law: Concern Over 'Official' Bloggers Spurs Query to DA. As he reports:
Five concerned School Committee chiefs are investigating whether blog postings written by public officials and the often-anonymous threads that follow them somehow violate the state's Open Meeting Law.

On May 18, the leaders of all the Amherst-area school boards - Shutesbury's Michael DeChiara, Amherst's Irv Rhodes, Leverett's Kip Fonsh and Farshid Hajir, and Pelham's Tracey Farnham - sent a letter to the Northwestern district attorney's office seeking a legal opinion on the matter.
I am quoted in the article, saying this:
In my view, the danger is not the blog, but the comments. If other committee members - enough to equal a quorum - post comments to the blog on the same issue, the sum of their comments could be considered a open meeting violation. In my opinion, the only safe course for a school committee member who wants to write a blog is to turn off the comments.
Whatever comes of this, these school committee officials should be commended for their foresight in recognizing the potential for a problem and seeking legal guidance. (Read their letter here.) That said, my belief is that the DA should defer the question to the Attorney General's Office.

In a month, on July 1, the AG takes over all enforcement and interpretation of the open meeting law and the DA will no longer be involved. One of the rationales for this move is to bring consistency to the law's application throughout the state. This is clearly a question of statewide relevance and one that the AG should address, if anyone.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

One Company Has A New Idea for Notice Posting

I posted here recently about how cities and towns in Massachusetts are struggling to figure out how they will comply with the 24/7 notice-posting requirement of the state's new open meeting law, which takes effect July 1. The new law requires that notices of meetings be posted "in a manner conspicuously visible to the public at all hours."

Given that municipal buildings are not open at all hours, this would seem to require the notices be posted outside. A simple weatherproof bulletin board would work fine for small towns with few meetings, but larger cities and towns with many scheduled meetings could face problems complying with the law.

Recently, the new Division of Open Government in the Attorney General's office invited public comment on a Notice Posting Proposal suggesting alternative posting methods, including posting on the Web or on local-access TV.

Now, a small Massachusetts company is proposing another alternative, an outdoor, weatherproof, digital display that automatically shows all scheduled meetings and their agendas. The company, Minuteman Digital, was started by the father-son duo of Harry and Ben Forsdick.

What they offer is actually two products. One is the live-display hardware equipped with an Internet connection to transmit the data to the display. The other is proprietary event-listing software that uses a municipality's existing calendar system to send information to the display.

They sell the service as an annual subscription. The municipality can buy the display through Minuteman or provide its own. The basic first-year package (without the display) starts at $900 and the subscription after the first year is $600.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Cities Struggle With New Notice-Posting Mandate

As I've noted here before, the new open meeting law that takes effect in Massachusetts on July 1 requires cities and towns to post meeting notices "in a manner conspicuously visible to the public at all hours." That 24/7 posting requirement has many local government officials concerned about how they will comply. Recently, the new Division of Open Government in the Attorney General's office invited public comment on a Notice Posting Proposal suggesting alternative posting methods.

Yesterday in The Republican in Springfield, State House reporter Dan Ring reported on this issue. Many local officials, he writes, are hoping that the AG decides that meeting notices need be posted only on local-government Web sites to comply with the law.

My fear is that Web-only notice will be insufficient to reach all citizens. Several recent studies say that a third of citizens still lack Internet access. Even those who do have access use it primarily for e-mail. They do not spend their days surfing local government Web sites in search of meeting notices.

There is another alternative that has withstood the test of time. I filed comments with the AG on behalf of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association suggesting that these notices be published in local newspapers. As it turns out, many cities and town already publish at least some of their meeting notices in newspapers. Newspapers are the established outlet for publication of government and official notices. I suspect the best way to reach the maximum number of people is to employ some combination of print and electronic notice.

Friday, May 07, 2010

No Shield for Journalists, Canada's Top Court Says

Journalists in Canada have no special constitutional protection against being required to reveal their sources, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled today. However, courts may shield a journalist's source if the public interest in granting such protection outweighs the public interest in investigating a crime, the court said.

Read the full report in the Toronto Star.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

AG Takes Over Open Meeting Law Enforcement

Effective July 1, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley's office will be exclusively responsible for enforcing the state's open meeting law. Formerly, the AG enforced the law with regard to state-government entities and district attorneys enforced it with regard to local-government entities.

Coakley and Robert Nasdor, the newly appointed chief of the AG's new Division of Open Government, published a post yesterday at the New England First Amendment Center offering a preview of things to come. They say they will focus on providing training and educational resources to government officials to enhance their understanding of the law. They also say they are developing a comprehensive Web site devoted to the new law.

The new law authorizes the AG's office to issue binding interpretations of its application to specific sets of facts, they note. They say they also plan to issue procedural and substantive regulations to fill in any gaps in the statute.

Finally, they invite anyone with questions or suggestions about the new law to contact them at