Martha Coakley tries to define Open Meeting Law violations
Attorney General Martha Coakley is trying to clarify what it means to violate the Open Meeting Law intentionally, an offense that can cost government boards a $1,000 fine.
The state law, updated in 2010, allows such fines only for intentional violations. Since late last year, Coakley has sought to pin down what that means.
She proposed on Monday to define an intentional violation as when a board or a member acts with “specific intent” to break the law or “deliberate ignorance” of its requirements.
Those standards would be added to the existing definition, which defines intentional violations only as when boards are informed beforehand by a court decision or advice from the attorney general that their actions would violate the law.
Coakley’s proposal also would add that when a board “made a good faith attempt at compliance with the law, but was reasonably mistaken,” or acted on the advice of legal counsel, the attorney general would not consider a violation to be intentional.
The attorney general’s office has been trying to more clearly define terms in the new Open Meeting Law since last year. The law requires most town, city and public school boards to meet with advance notice in public, with limited exceptions, such as contract negotiations.
In December, Coakley had proposed a definition for what “knowing or knowingly” violating the law means.
In response to public comments at the time, her office said it decided to tackle the definition of an intentional violation instead.
Coakley’s latest proposal seems broader than the existing definition, said Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director of the New England First Amendment Center.
“It seems the intention is good,” she said.
However, Cavanagh said she worried town counsels might come under pressure to give boards the advice they want to hear if it will absolve them of breaking the law.
Attorney Jim Lampke, executive director of the City Solicitors and Town Counsels Association, said he had not yet reviewed Coakley’s proposal. In general, he said the vast majority of Open Meeting Law violations are mistakes made in good faith.
“We do appreciate the attorney general’s office's willingness to listen and be willing to try to address concerns,” Lampke said.
There is no question that there are intentional violations, too, said Robert Ambrogi, a media law attorney.
Ambrogi said he does not want to see Coakley's office too narrowly define what constitutes an intentional violation so it can still look at complaints on a case-by-case basis.
“The more strictly you define something, the more you exclude other possibilities,” he said.
The attorney general's office will accept public comments on her proposal until July 17 at 5 p.m., by email at email@example.com or in writing at One Ashburton Place, 20th Floor, Boston, MA 02108.
A public hearing will be held at the same address, but on the 21st floor, on July 17 from 3-5 p.m.
(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)