Stateline: When governing bodies meet behind closed doors
For Monday, Dec. 10, publication
Governing bodies are required by the state’s open meeting law to meet in public, to post public notice of meetings in advance, and to keep records of all meetings for public viewing.
That’s not how it always happens. Elected and appointed officials around the state have been known to go into closed-door sessions to discuss sticky or embarrassing issues, sometimes refusing to release a summary of the session’s minutes afterward.
Violations can be reported to district attorneys, but citations are after-the-fact and carry little in the way of fines or penalties.
Last month, for example, the Plymouth County district attorney cited Braintree selectmen for calling an emergency meeting over a non-emergency, and ordered them to release minutes of the meeting. The DA also recently validated open meeting violation complaints by a Hingham Recreation Commissioner against fellow commissioners.
In 2003, then-Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley ordered the Holliston School Committee to reconstruct minutes from 10 closed-door meetings that involved more than 12 hours of discussions, culminating in a $130,000 buyout of the school superintendent.
Now that she’s the state attorney general, Coakley is talking with district attorneys about strengthening the open meeting law.
“She’s looking at other ways to support and enforce this law,” said her spokesman, Harry Pierre. “This is something the AG and and other DAs have talked about.”
Coakley hasn’t released details of her plan, but she has previously discussed moving enforcement of the law within her office, instead of leaving it to district attorneys around the state. She’s also discussed tougher monetary penalties for violations and better educating local officials about their duties and responsibilities under the law.
Hoping to partner with Coakley on an open meeting law reform is Rep. Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat who wants to establish fines of up to $500 for individuals and $1,000 for public bodies found breaking the law. Cabral also wants to include teleconferencing and electronic real-time communication in an updated law.
“It is important that government operates as transparently as possible, and allows as much interaction as possible,” he said. “An open process is good for democracy, a lot of the decisions of these boards have a big impact on people’s lives.”
But Coakley and Cabral may have a hard sell on her hands. A revision of the law will need legislative approval, and lawmakers haven’t been quick in recent years to strengthen open government laws.
Local officials say open meeting law violations aren’t common enough to warrant fines for individuals, many of whom volunteer on boards.
“We’re talking about volunteers to town and city boards and commissions,” said Geoff Beckwith of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “There’s already a system in place for compliance and accountability, and obviously if there’s an oversight or a problem, it should be reported.”
Excerpts from the Open Meeting Law:
- Meetings of a governmental body shall be open to the public
- Notice of a meeting shall be posted 48 hours in advance
- Accurate records of all meetings, including executive sessions, must be available to the public
- Executive sessions are allowed under nine exemptions to protect individual privacy and to discuss litigation or personnel matters
- To read the Open Meeting Law, go to: http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/39-23b.htm
Source: General Laws of Massachusetts
Tom Benner may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.