Thursday, March 20, 2008

Learning the Election Lingo

This column originally appeared in the Attleboro Sun Chronicle on Saturday, March 15, 2008.

It is once again election time in the area, and our local communities are gearing up for their annual exercise in democracy.

While voters have been turning out in record numbers for presidential primaries and state elections in recent years, the level of participation in town elections has been much more disappointing. Some of that may have to do with a lack of understanding of the local process as compared to the state and federal elections.

So being the intrepid and fearless local columnist I am, I decided to try and help people better understand politics on the local level.

To that end, I thought I would help explain some common terms used during the local election season that might not be interpreted the same way outside our little area. Those who have been here a while no doubt totally understand them, but those without experience in local election lingo might find this helpful.

Therefore, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, I offer a quick list of local election and governmental terms and their definitions:

CONCERNED CITIZEN’S GROUP – a group of people working towards a political goal you agree with.

SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP – a group of people working towards a political goal you disagree with.

TOWNIE – a person who has lived in a community their entire life or 30 years, whichever is longer.

MEDDLING OUTSIDER – everyone who does not fall into the previous category.

POLITICIAN – someone who spends most of their time claiming not to be a politician.

DEDICATED PUBLIC SERVANT – a politician who is dead, retired, or currently doing what you want.

LEVY LIMIT – the amount of money a community raises from taxation which the state says is enough, the taxpayers say is too much, and the town employees say is too little.

TOWN MANAGER/ADMINISTRATOR – person who gets paid to take the blame when things go wrong, and direct the credit to elected officials when things go right.

COMMITTEE – a group of people formed to slowly beat the life out of all good ideas.

CHAIRMAN – the committee member who arrived late to the first meeting.

MUNICIPAL FINANCE – a system for handling money which contradicts all common sense and normal business practices.

POLITICAL AGENDA – a list of things a politician you do not agree with wants to achieve in office, and that you are determined to stop.

LONG RANGE PLAN – a list of things a politician you agree with wants to achieve in office, and you are determined to help.

TOWN MEETING – a system designed to make citizens think they have some power in order to perpetuate the real system in which they have little.

CANDIDATE’S NIGHT – an evening where politicians running for public office try not to say anything that might make you want to vote against them.

CLEAN CAMPAIGN – an election where both candidates agree to hide each others faults from the public.

OVERRIDE – something used to start and end political careers.

FRIEND – what a politician calls people who worked on his or her campaign.

CONSTITUENT – what a politician calls people who did not work on his or her campaign.

ACTIVIST JUDGE – a judge who issues rulings you disagree with.

PRUDENT JURIST – a judge who issues rulings you agree with.

AD HOC CITIZENS COMMITTEE – this is Latin for “Just Kidding”.

CAMPAIGN PROMISE – when a politician promises to provide something that either already exists, or is impossible to achieve.

LET THE PEOPLE DECIDE – what a politician says when he or she does not want to make a difficult decision on their own and make someone angry.

NEWSPAPER COLUMNIST – very intelligent, good-looking, well-rounded individual highly skilled at pointing out everyone else’s shortcomings.

Any questions? Class dismissed.

Bill Gouveia is – as you might have guessed – a local columnist. You can read his column here every Saturday, and reach him at

Monday, March 3, 2008

Open Meeting Law

This column originally appeared in the Attleboro Sun Chronicle on Saturday, March 1, 2008.

The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law is one of the most important statutes governing local municipal bodies. But there are serious problems with it that must be addressed.

More and more local governmental committees are subverting the law whenever they decide it suits their purpose. They do so because the advantages they get from their illegal actions outweigh the minimal punishment that accompanies their defiance.

Most problems with the Open Meeting Law lay in its enforcement and penalties. While the public and political pressure brought to bear on offenders may be intense and damaging, the actual price to be paid for violations is generally light and seldom imposed.

A case in point is the recent situation involving the North Attleboro Planning Board. That committee held an illegal executive session in order to discuss the operations of their office away from the prying eyes of the public.

They were called on it and reported to the District Attorney. DA Sam Sutter, elected largely because of his hard-line attitude on prosecutions, confirmed they had broken the law but did little else.

Sutter acknowledged the violation, but praised the board for eventually admitting their mistake and making the minutes of their illegal executive session public.

“The planning board took this action in a timely manner, and the harm caused has been remedied,” Sutter wrote in a letter on the topic.

With all due respect, the DA is absolutely wrong.

The harm caused has in no way been remedied. Reading the minutes from their improper meeting in no way mitigates the damage caused by their illegal actions, nor does it wipe out any advantage they may have gained.

Minutes do not reveal everything said at a meeting. It is more than possible the illegal executive session allowed planning board members to say things they did not want the public to hear. Then they release minutes which in no way reflect those comments, but the discussion may well affect future decisions.

So it is possible the planning board may have intentionally violated the law, accomplished their goal, then apologized and received no punishment.

That is hardly an incentive not to do something similar again. It also does not serve as any kind of deterrent for other officials and boards who may be considering similar actions.

In other words – violating this law and then saying “oops” is often an effective tool.

District Attorneys need to start taking Open Meeting Law offenses much more seriously. The legislature needs to strengthen and toughen the penalties for proven violations in order to discourage those who have learned the law has virtually no teeth.

Until violators start being hit with fines for their actions, situations like this will continue to occur. While no one wants to unnecessarily penalize well-meaning volunteers who give of their time to the community, this law is so important to the integrity of government that something must be done.

Otherwise we will continue to have situations like this and the recent one in Foxboro, where the selectmen and conservation commission appear to have flaunted the Open Meeting Law in a very public way.

As in the North situation, officials in Foxboro may well have already accomplished what they were after. No future apology or pledge to not do it again will negate that advantage or restore the right of the public to free and open meetings.

Will enforcing fines of say $100 per member per violation prevent situations like this in the future? Possibly, but there is no guarantee. At best it may make members think twice before agreeing to violate the trust placed in them.

The Sun Chronicle has reported the alleged violation in Foxboro to Norfolk District Attorney William Keating. What Keating will find and what actions he may take remain to be seen.

The big problem here is not that people do not understand the law, but rather that the advantages gained in violating it are greater than the punishment.

Until that is properly addressed, until district attorneys take violations seriously, the Open Meeting Law will remain more of a suggestion than a requirement for some local officials.

Bill Gouveia is a community columnist and a big fan of the Open Meeting Law. His column appears every Saturday, and he can be reached at