AN INSIDE LOOK - Commentary and opinions on local politics and life in general in Southeastern Massachusetts! Featuring the writings of Bill Gouveia, newspaper columnist for the Sun Chronicle and local cable TV talk show host. Feel free to read, comment and enjoy!
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Foxboro Officials Struggle With Open Meeting Law
This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on June 17, 2013
AN INSIDE LOOK
By Bill Gouveia
The question has
to be asked:Just what is it about the
state’s Open Meeting Law (OML) town officials in Foxboro and their
attorneys apparently find so confusing?
Serving on a
municipal elected or appointed board is a difficult and often thankless
job.You immediately come under many
state rules and regulations, most notably the OML which governs how, when and
if boards and committees can go into executive session and meet away from the
watchful eyes of the public.
and their officials run afoul of this important statute, usually
unintentionally.The state requires
every official receive a copy of the law when they assume office, but it can be
complex and difficult to follow in some circumstances.Honest mistakes are very common.
But since the
penalties for violating it are almost laughably light and meaningless,
sometimes board and committee members don’t worry too much about the consequences.Often the convenience or political advantage
they gain by violating or bending the law is worth the slap on the wrist they
are likely to receive.
A few years ago
the Foxboro School Committee was found to have committed a violation of the OML
when it improperly negotiated a deal in closed session with then-superintendent
Christopher Martes concerning his retirement.They then proceeded to delay the release of the executive session
minutes for many months, perhaps afraid of the political backlash it would
When the state
Attorney General’s office got around to ruling on their violation, they were judged
to be in the wrong.Their “punishment” for the blatant acts was to have to sit through a “training session” run by the head of an organization to which they belong and hear
themselves overly praised by the paid head of that group.It was a sham session and a sham punishment.
Now fast forward
to the past few weeks when Foxboro’s selectmen had trouble following the law.The board members went into a hastily
scheduled executive session to discuss whether or not to renew the contract of
Town Manager Kevin Paicos.While in the
closed meeting, they voted not to renew the contract and in effect sever ties
with the controversial leader within the next year.
That is clearly a
violation of the OML, which they admitted this past week when they went through
the motions of taking the vote again - this time out in the open.The fact they conducted the first vote with
their attorney present only adds to the confusion and the mystery as to why
things were done this way.
The law does
enable selectmen to meet in secret to conduct negations with personnel, which
was in effect what they were doing.But
they and their lawyer should know the vote had to be in open session.That action, and the last-minute changing of
the agenda item, cast the entire board into an unnecessarily bad light.
Why has this been
such a problem in Foxboro?Most other
communities seem to be able to manage to deal with their top employees without
violating the law intended to allow the taxpayers and citizens as much access
and information as possible.Why is it
two different Foxboro boards, both represented by counsel, have such a hard
To be totally
fair, the violation by selectmen is not in the same class as the school
committee action.That was clearly
intentional and frankly inexcusable.This one is more puzzling, and just adds to the strange and twisting
legacy of Kevin Paicos and his time in Foxboro.
residents probably don’t care much if the actual vote to part ways with the town manager
was done in public or not, as long as it was announced.It wasn’t like this went on for months without being revealed, as happened
on the school side.But it continues to
provide new fodder for conspiracy theorists.
Foxboro town officials (and some of the lawyers who represent them) should take
a regular refresher course on the OML.And maybe the focus of it should be that despite the weak penalties for
violations, it is important and truly does matter.
Of course, this
could be all Bob Kraft’s fault.That excuse has
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at