Local officials take aim at Open Meeting Law during State Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg’s annual conference for municipal leaders

Last modified: Wednesday, May 06, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — An Open Meeting Law presentation at an annual conference for local civic leaders Saturday turned into a venting session about how many of them felt the law gets in the way of their work.

John A. Payne, chairman of the Shelburne Select Board, said he believed that the law allows people angry with town government to “harass” public officials by requesting meeting minutes. He also said the law caters more to the press than to the public, which “galls him.”

“I’m perfectly happy to make information available to the public, but I don’t think we should have laws that make the press’s job easier, particularly since they haven’t done anything to earn that.”

Payne’s comments, which also included his desire for boards to be able to privately discuss issues before publicly debating them, received a round of applause from conference attendees, who included more than 100 public officials from Hampshire and Franklin counties.

Held on the final day of “Sunshine Week,” a nationwide celebration of access to public information, state Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg’s annual Conference for Franklin and Hampshire County Municipal Officials began with a one-hour session on the state’s Open Meeting Law, featuring Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and Division of Open Government Director Amy Nable.

It was held in the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center.

A complicated law

The Open Meeting Law, last updated in 2009, requires that public meetings to be open and accessible to the public, that accurate minutes of the meetings be taken and that those minutes and other documents discussed be made available to the public.

The law allows individual committee members to talk one-on-one, but forbids a majority of a board from sharing opinions about issues it’s facing outside of public meetings.

The law discourages private email communication among board members and states that those emails can become public records.

“It’s a complicated law with a lot of nuance and people run into situations where they don’t know what to do,” Rosenberg said. He said he included the session to help educate local officials about the law.

Healey said her office, which enforces the Open Meeting Law, receives inquiries about it every day.

“I think that it’s important to recognize the principle that people should have the right to participate in their local government,” she said.

Defender, detractors

Amherst Finance Committee Chairman Kay Moran defended the law, saying that although it may be annoying to some, it is a key part of government.

“The Open Meeting Law is a great thing,” she said. “We serve the public and this allows the public to know what the business of our communities is and how decisions are arrived at.”

But most others who spoke during the question-and-answer period criticized the law.

Michael Idoine, a former Wendell Finance Committee member, said he retired from that board in part because of the Open Meeting Law. He was embarrassed by the law’s “petty rules,” he said.

Idoine said complying with the law would require a small town like Wendell to hire one or two secretaries and that the law narrowed an already diminishing interest in serving in elected government.

He said the Legislature should consider repealing it.

“I would like to see an open discussion about repealing this law or dealing with some of the conflicts it causes in being able to carry on an effective town government,” Idoine said.

Jeffrey Singleton of Montague, who serves on the Franklin Regional Transportation Authority, called the law “unfair and undemocratic,” because it discourages members of boards from speaking to one another outside of meetings.

“The fact is, you don’t just send around information, you send around complicated things on complex local issues and sometimes you can’t do that within a 10-minute agenda item at your twice-a-month meeting,” he said.

Most violations occur, Singleton said, when board members try to sort out complex issues with one another.

“Human nature and political nature is they want to talk to those people who agree with them,” he said. In his view, the law’s definitions should be eased to allow that “normal political behavior.”

“This is a very artificial law that breeds rank amateurism and is undemocratic,” he said to applause.

Alisa Brewer, an Amherst Select Board member, said she feels hindered by the restrictions on how she can express her opinions. Committee members can distribute information, but cannot say whether or not they agree with the data until they are at a meeting, she said.

That slows down debate, which can discourage people who want things to happen quickly from participating, she said. Expressing all opinions in open meetings can take a long time. This lengthy process discourages people from serving on boards in Amherst, Brewer said.

“That to me doesn’t feel like it’s the spirit of the law.”

Michael DeChiara, a former Shutesbury School Committee member, said the law should be more open to technological innovations, such as blogs and state and municipal email groups. His committee used a Google group that posts information on a public website, but he said a municipal-run system would be better than using Google.

Concerns heard

Healey said she would establish a division of community engagement, which would continue to provide guidance and education about the law.

Following the session, she said she would keep the public officials’ comments in mind as she continued her work.

“The Open Meeting Law is intended to be about creating and supporting democracy, and it is really important that we need to make sure the spirit of that is carried forward in the words of the law and requirements,” she said.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said he was glad to hear Healey and Nable’s presentation, and said he supported the law’s ability to let citizens see how their tax money is spent.

“I realize there was strong sentiment in the room that the law can be inhibiting for public bodies, but on the whole I do think it is a good law,” he said.

Narkewicz’s main criticism is that the Legislature, which crafted the law and is responsible for changing it, is not subject to some of its provisions.

Rosenberg said legislators in the same party discuss issues behind close doors in order to try out ideas that might not be ready for the public, one of the same requests Payne made for local boards and committees. Negotiations between the House and the Senate to merge versions of the same legislation passed by the two branches are also private, he said.

“Transparency is important in government but it has to operate in a way that allows people to do their jobs,” Rosenberg said. He said it is rare that decisions would be made in a caucus and described them as exploratory discussions before public debate.

Having such conversations in public would have a “chilling effect” on the ability to explore ideas, forge compromise and be creative, Rosenberg said.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.