Editorial: Open meeting reform is overdue
Local government in Massachusetts depends on the efforts of volunteers, the confidence of citizens and the transparency of the public process. The state's Open Meeting Law, which requires the public's business be conducted in front of the public, is essential to all three.
But the Open Meeting Law, which dates back to the 1970s, is far from perfect. It can be confusing to volunteers, who often learn its provisions only after being caught violating them. Enforcement, which is left to district attorneys, is inconsistent: Some DAs are sticklers for compliance, while others don't seem to care. When violations are found, there are often no penalties beyond letters warning officials not to do it again.
A bill that cleared a House committee last week promises to improve the OML in several ways. It would standardize the way the OML applies to state, county and municipal bodies. It would clarify and extend the law's requirement that interviews by public bodies to fill public positions must be public. It would increase the available penalties for violating the law from $500 to $1,000.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford, would bring the OML into the 21st century, requiring that deliberations involving a quorum of a public body by e-mail, instant messaging, video conferencing or Web conferencing be reported publicly at the group's next meeting.
Most importantly, the bill would move OML jurisdiction from the district attorneys to the state attorney general. That would ensure more consistent enforcement of the law statewide. The bill would establish a Division of Open Meeting Law within the AG's office that could be an educational resource for municipal officials as well as the press. Ignorance of the law's provisions, especially in unusual circumstances, is often behind violations, and the constant churn of new members onto volunteer boards requires steady, consistent education efforts that are best handled by a single state office.
Attorney General Martha Coakley supports the bill, as does the state district attorneys' organization. Media organizations have indicated their support as well. What we need now is for the Legislature, which has pointedly exempted itself from the OML for decades, to write these overdue reforms into law.
Open government works, and updating the Open Meeting Law will help it work even better.