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

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