Wednesday, June 29, 2011

AG Releases Figures on First Year of Open Meeting Law

A year ago, the new Massachusetts open meeting law took effect, for the first time vesting full enforcement power in the attorney general, rather than spreading enforcement among local district attorneys as the prior law had done.

Today, Attorney General Martha Coakley issued a report on the first year of the law's enforcement under her office. (As of this writing, the report is not available on the AG's website but I'm told it should be posted within a day or so.) Here are some of the accomplishments she lists in the report:

  • Respond to more than 2,000 telephone and email inquiries from members of public bodies, municipal counsel and the public.
  • Investigate 116 complaints.
  • Resolve 51 cases, including issuing 34 determinations and informally resolving 17 complaints. 
  • Conduct or participate in 47 trainings, including seven regional educational forums on the OML.
  • Develop a comprehensive OML website.
  • Draft proposed regulations authorizing remote participation in public meetings in certain circumstances.

Ironically, the report fails to mention some of her office's other achievements under the new law, such as drafting interim and permanent regulations to implement the new law and drafting an Open Meeting Law Guide.

The tone of the report is rosy, but it has not been all good news for the AG's OML division. For one, in just over a year of operation, the division has seen two directors come and go. The division's first director, Robert Nasdor, left after just four months. His successor, Britte McBride, did a great job of picking up the ball and running with it, but she also recently left for a new post within the AG's office. The current and third director is Amy Nable.

Still, my opinion is that the AG's office deserves credit for starting from zero and building up to operating speed. The new law gave Coakley major new responsibilities but no extra staff and no extra money to carry them out. The law had – and still has – many grey areas that the AG needed to address. The AG did a good job of launching this new division given what she had to work with. And several of the division's rulings so far show that the AG takes the law seriously and means business.

I've heard complaints that some counties were better off when the DA was enforcing the law. I think time will demonstrate that this change in enforcement made sense. Of course, over the long run, that will depend on whether AGs who succeed Coakley continue to take the law seriously and don’t push the OML division into a back closet.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hypocrisy about Transparency on Beacon Hill

Even with this week's conviction of former Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi on corruption charges, the response of legislative leaders on Beacon Hill appears to be little more than, "Hey, there's nothing more we can do." As an AP report by Steve LeBlanc says today, there have been few calls for more ethics changes on Beacon Hill.

One reason for this is that the legislature passed a sweeping ethics reform bill just two years ago. And as part of that sweeping reform bill, it also passed a sweeping overhaul of the state's Open Meeting Law, an overhaul supposedly designed to beef up transparency.

But a funny thing about that open meeting law: The legislature exempted itself. Although boards and commissions in the executive branch of state government and in local cities and towns are required to conduct most of their business in public, the legislature has been unwilling to subject itself to the same requirement.

As a matter of fact, the legislature has also exempted itself from the public records law.

Together, the open meeting law and the public records law are the two primary laws designed to ensure transparency in government.

And the legislature has exempted itself from both. But then it says there's nothing more it can do to combat corruption. Hypocrisy.

In the last session of the legislature, bills were filed that would have removed the legislature's exemption from the open meeting law. The bills went nowhere.

Now, in the current session, legislators have another chance. Several bills have been filed that would put the legislature under the open meeting law. They are:

If the legislature is truly committed to open and honest government, it should put its money where its mouth is, so to speak. The legislature should subject itself to the same transparency laws it requires other government officials to abide by. 

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Vt. Gov. Signs Bill Strengthening Records Law

Associated Press via Vermont Governor Signs Bill Strengthening Public Access:
A bill strengthening Vermont's 35-year-old public records statutes was signed into law Wednesday, removing a financial barrier for citizens who want to sue when they've been denied access by awarding them reimbursement of their legal fees if they win their case. 
The measure also mandates the appointment of public records officers in state agencies and establishes a panel to examine more than 200 exemptions to the law.
Kudos to Vermont.

Read more.