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Editorial: Keep public meetings open

The state has determined that the Southampton Select Board violated the Open Meeting Law April 10 and Feb. 21 last year, as well as on July 26 in 2011. In a four-page ruling released in December, the attorney general’s office imposed a consequence that seems highly reasonable — and even qualifies as the proverbial teaching moment. Board members must immediately start following the law and must attend a training session on the state law designed to promote transparency in government and protect the public’s right to know — or take part in online training within 90 days.

We urge members of the board to comply as soon as possible.

Simply put, the AG’s ruling stated that at least three times, Southampton officials went into closed-door sessions when they should not have done so.

Acting on a complaint from Michael Sacco, a member of the town’s zoning board and an attorney in town, Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Sclarsic of the division of open government undertook a review of the board’s actions regarding attempts by the town to purchase property on Brickyard Road.

Because of multiple health code violations and tax liens, the town was taking action to clean up the property at 178 Brickyard Road. It then planned to sell part of the land to pay for the clean-up, preserve some land as open space and leave the homeowner a small parcel on which to build a new house.

We have no doubt the intentions of town officials were honorable. It appears they were trying to preserve a town resident’s autonomy and his homestead while also protecting the town’s stake in its property. But when officials met with an attorney representing seller Michael Wojtowitz and the attorney for the town, they in effect took away their legal standing to go into executive session.

In other words, one of 10 exemptions from the provisions of the Open Meeting Law is for a city or town to discuss a land deal if a public airing of their perspective would hurt their negotiating position. But because all interested parties were at the meeting, there was no reason to hold those discussions in private.

Minutes of the meeting reveal that the board and the attorney for the seller came to an agreement that the town would acquire 22 acres of the Wojtowitz land in exchange for forgiving about $50,000 in liens on the property.

That agreement seems like a reasonable one, and we question why the board thought it needed to discuss the matter in secret.

The state’s Open Meeting Law is not aimed at making the lives of busy public officials — who are often volunteers working tirelessly for their communities — more difficult. Though at times, it may do that.

But if someone steps up to serve the town, he or she owes it to their community to do it properly, which means striving to work within the dictates of the Open Meeting Law.

Granted, it may be confusing at times to figure out how to comply while also protecting privacy, when necessary, and conducting sometimes-delicate town business.

An open meeting training session held in September, unfortunately, drew just one Select Board member. We trust more members will go to the next one.

And there are other ways to find out whether a matter before town leaders qualifies for executive session. Officials in a small town can call an elected representative in a neighboring community who may have more experience with the Open Meeting Law, or call the attorney general’s office to inquire.

When in doubt, we suggest board members err on the side of openness, letting the public see their deliberations.

Meantime, we hope Southampton officials ordered to participate in an Open Meeting Law training session make that among their top priorities as public officials in the new year.

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