AG: Hadley Select Board violated open meeting law when it approved vaccine policy

  • Hadley Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/16/2021 8:00:16 PM

HADLEY — The state attorney general’s office has found that the Hadley Select Board violated the state’s Open Meeting Law in May when it approved a broad new policy related to COVID-19 vaccinations and access to town buildings.

In a decision announced Tuesday, the AG’s office ruled that the Select Board broke the law May 12 when its members voted 4-1 to approve a vaccination policy barring the town from denying the public access to town property or events based on their vaccine status. It also stated that Hadley would not require town employees, elected or appointed officials to be vaccinated, and would not maintain medical information such as vaccination records.

When the Select Board posted its notice for the May 12 meeting, its agenda simply referred to a “Covid-19 Update” to be discussed, with no additional details or description, unlike other items on the agenda that evening. Town resident John Allen subsequently filed an Open Meeting Law complaint with the state, arguing that the agenda was not specific enough to reasonably advise the public of the topic of discussion at the meeting.

“We agree,” Assistant Attorney General Sarah Monahan wrote Tuesday to Hadley Select Board Chairman David Fill, who wrote and presented the policy at the May 12 meeting. “The generic item, ‘Covid-19 Update,’ does not provide any detail about the nature of the anticipated discussions.”

Fill could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

The AG’s office has ordered that, within 30 days, the Select Board must again discuss the topics held under the “Covid-19 Update” in May and retake any votes from that meeting.

The state also took issue with the Select Board’s assertion that the use of the broad COVID-19 agenda topic was justified because the board had used that same topic for more than a year when any information sharing or policy related to the pandemic was discussed.

“Rather, the Board’s use of the same topic for such a long period, covering such a range of subtopics, indicates how non-specific the ‘Covid-19 Update’ item was,” Monahan wrote. “In the course of a pandemic that, as of the date of the meeting at issue, had lasted more than a year and impacted nearly every aspect of life, a general topic such as ‘Covid-19 Update’ is far too broad to meet the Open Meeting Law’s specificity requirement.”

In May, Fill said he drafted the policy after people, including town workers, expressed concerns to him that they could be denied entry to Town Hall and other municipal buildings if they didn’t present proof of vaccination.

At the May meeting, Board of Health Chairwoman Dr. Susan Mosler told Select Board members that she had not seen the proposed policy in advance and that it might have been too broad and not geared toward public health.

Only one board member, Jane Nevinsmith, voted against the new vaccine policy in May. After that meeting, Nevinsmith said she was upset with the way the matter was handled and suggested that the Select Board may have violated the Open Meeting Law in the process.

“It offered no opportunity for public input from the taxpayers in advance because there was no sense that it was in the offering,” Nevinsmith said at the time.

The Gazette earlier reported that the policy had an immediate impact on the senior center where Nevinsmith is active because some elders had only been comfortable using the building knowing that people in it were fully vaccinated. An instructor also was worried about teaching an exercise class, and some activities were moved outdoors as a precaution.

Allen, who filed the Open Meeting Law complaint said Thursday he did so in part as a learning experience for everyone involved.

“I hope the selectmen realize that, as unique as Hadley is, it still has to follow the laws that apply to all other cities and towns,” Allen said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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