Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Foxboro Officials Struggle With Open Meeting Law

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on June 17, 2013


By Bill Gouveia

            The question has to be asked:  Just what is it about the states 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.

            Many communities 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 dont 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 cause. 

            When the state Attorney Generals 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 Foxboros 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 time?

            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.

            Most Foxboro residents probably dont 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 wasnt 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.

            Perhaps all 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 Krafts fault.  That excuse has worked before.


Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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