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. 

3 comments:

David Rosenberg said...

The current Open Meeting Law's silence on the use of modern technology (e.g. the internet) is keeping us from being as open and transparent as we'd like to be. Following conservative advice from Town Counsel, the town committee that I chair is both less open and less efficient than it would otherwise be.

It is clear that open, publicly-accessible discussions between or among members a public body conducted via the internet further the goal of transparency. They make the proceedings of a public body open and facilitate monitoring by the public. In fact, holding discussions this way would make the proceedings of a public body much more transparent. In an environment where the citizenry is under various pressures and with limited time available, few people are able to attend all the meetings of the bodies in whose work they are (or might be) interested. Among the many ways that publicly-accessible discussions conducted via the internet are MORE OPEN than physical meetings are:
1. they are freely accessible from any computer (or other device with internet access and web browsing capability) at any time and from any place with internet access (such as in the user's home, office, or local Public Library) that the individual citizen finds convenient (without having to attend a meeting which might be at an inconvenient time or in an inconvenient location). So if an individual citizen is on vacation or attending an out-of-state business meeting, or has child-care responsibilities, or has conflicting obligations at the time the physical meeting would have occurred, or can't travel long distances, or at night, or alone, he can still monitor the full discussion - either as it is taking place or later.
2. they (automatically) leave a full transcript of the discussion.
3. the public at large has almost instantaneous access (rather than having to wait for meeting minutes to become available).
4. citizens can return to the archive for later reference.
5. anyone can refer other potentially interested parties to the archive - so someone who might not have known that he would be interested in a meeting and might not have attended the physical meeting can still go back and read the full discussion.
6. in many implementations of archives for publicly-accessible internet discussions, there might possibly be built-in search facilities that will help citizens searching for particular information in the archive.

I believe that the Division of Open Government could issue Advisory Opinions that are consistent with the current law and allow "openness through the internet". The Advisory Opinions could do this by requiring that if there is going to be deliberation via the internet between or among a quorum of a public body on public business within its jurisdiction, that deliberation must be publicly accessible via the internet, an announcement that the deliberation via the internet is going to take place and instructions for accessing it must be included in a posted notice, archives of those deliberations must be maintained, and those archives must be publicly accessible.

I have also drafted possible amendments to the Open Meeting Law to explicitly include "openness through the internet" as described above. I'd be willing to share my draft amendments, but I'm not sure that I can do it in this blog.

Robert Ambrogi said...

I should clarify that the legislature was already exempt from the OML prior to the overhaul. When it rewrote the law two years ago, it had an opportunity to revoke that exemption, but chose not to.

CRM said...

Following conservative advice from Town Counsel, the town committee that I chair is both less open and less efficient than it would otherwise be.