Friday, February 14, 2014

Foxboro Selectmen And Open Meeting Law

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, February 14, 2014.

By Bill Gouveia


            This state’s Open Meeting Law (OML) is often made out to be some complex series of regulations.  But it really isn’t.  It is a relatively simple statement of the rules for keeping government meetings open to the public.


            That is clearly evidenced by the fact most cities and towns have little trouble following it.  Sure, they might need some guidance from their lawyers or state officials on interpreting some of the finer points.  But year after year, for many decades now, Massachusetts municipalities generally abide by the spirit and the letter of this important statute.


            And then, there is Foxboro…


            When repeated and continued violations of the OML occur in the same community, it is usually because someone or some group of officials has decided following the law is inconvenient, politically inexpedient, or just beneath them.  The blatant disregard and political abuse of the OML in Foxboro is well-documented and quite institutionalized.  And it is time for it to come to an end.


            The town’s Board of Selectmen is the most recent and perhaps the most regular violator of the OML.  While it is difficult to term their abuse of the law as deliberate, it is becoming even tougher to believe it continues to be an accident.  Quite frankly, if you seek not to impugn the board’s integrity in this regard, you almost have to get to the point of questioning their intelligence.


            The selectmen violated the OML when they voted in closed session to terminate the contract of former town manager Kevin Paicos.  They did this with their attorney in the room.  They later admitted the violation and took the vote again in open session, after they had achieved the political objective that led to the illegal vote in the first place.  No harm, no foul was the apparent attitude.


            More recently they have fought with their own town counsel over whether or not they were guilty of another OML violation.  This time it involved an illegal communication from selectman Lorraine Brue to her other members concerning the proposed liquor license for the Splitsville bowling alley/nightclub.


            After selectmen and the town manager all stated there was no violation in this instance, it was discovered their attorney had a different opinion.  After much haggling and some citizen intervention, they decided to have Brue read her email aloud as a way to “cure” the violation they earlier said did not exist.  Once again, it amounts to copping a plea with no punishment after achieving their political goal.


            And there was great effort taken to stress the violation was “inadvertent”.  The OML does indeed differentiate between intentional violations and deliberate ones, but it is often very difficult to prove the former.  In the end, a violation is a violation.  If you take on the responsibility of being a selectman, the need to understand and follow the OML becomes a part of that.


            Now selectmen appear to be using the OML as a way of preventing their real and alleged violations from being discussed or addressed.  They have taken steps to structure their agenda to prevent citizens from bringing it up.  They have refused requests from one of their own members to publicly address the issue in a transparent and direct manner.  They are using the law to help them avoid confronting their own missteps and mistakes.


            Selectmen Jim DeVellis has been consistently thwarted in his efforts to focus the board on truly living up to the ideals of the OML.  He has tried to open up the process instead of covering it up, with little to no success.  “Selectmen and applicants come and go, but the public process should remain intact,” he recently stated.


            The sad truth is if selectmen put as much effort into following the OML as they have in trying to get around it, they would not be in the trouble they now face.  They would not be in the position of appearing to consider themselves above the law.  They would not be at risk of having their integrity publicly challenged.


            Selectmen have blamed the public for the prevailing political attitude permeating Foxboro these days.  But they need look no further than themselves for an example of bad behavior leading to problems in the local government.


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

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