Friday, March 28, 2014

Open Meeting Law Violators Don't Worry

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, March 28, 2014

By Bill Gouveia


When I read Sun Chronicle Editor Mike Kirby’s column on Sunday (as I always do) I was amazed, dismayed, angry and upset.  Not by his column, but by what I learned from reading it.


I knew the Open Meeting Law in Massachusetts contained little in the way of penalties for those who violate it.  But I had assumed enforcement of this important statute had gotten tougher since responsibility for it was transferred from the local district attorney to the state Attorney General’s office.


That clearly is not the case.


The column noted of the 512 complaints filed with the AG’s office in the last four years, 221 were found to be actual violations.  Of those, only three – count ‘em, three – resulted in fines of $1000 each.  Those fines were assessed against the municipality, not against any of the offending officials personally.


In four years not one individual was held personally accountable for any violation of the law that prevents public business from being conducted away from the prying eyes of those pesky citizens.  At first glance, you would think that has to be some type of mistake.


But when you stop and remember that the Massachusetts legislature is specifically exempted from the provisions of the OML, you begin to understand.  How can the state’s highest law enforcement officers significantly penalize local officials for something House members and Senators are allowed to do on a regular basis?


I also learned there is a bill pending right now that would hold individual officials responsible and create a special commission to study the possibility of extending the law to cover the state legislature.  Of course, on Beacon Hill the word “study” is often merely a euphemism for the word “kill”, so no one should get their hopes up.


Yet even the remote possibility of creating transparency in our private club of a legislature is something worth pursuing.  Which is why area residents and voters should make it a point to contact their local state representatives and senators to find out how they plan to vote on this important legislation.


Of course, our local legislators acting on their own can do relatively little to advance a bill most of their colleagues will no doubt oppose – though probably not publicly.  It is not good politics for any legislator to come out against a bill that increases transparency and gives the taxpayers more control. 


So most will intimate they have fought the good fight, secure in the knowledge those high up in their party’s leadership (who truly control things) will take the heat for them.  The bill is likely to be slowly swallowed up by the legislative quicksand upon which the State House seems to be built, and with it will most likely go all hopes for any true reform in the immediate future.


But we can’t stop trying or asking, because this is far too important.  So what can we as ordinary citizens do, you ask?


It makes little to no sense that we have a law that seeks to solve 351 separate problems by enforcing the OML in every city and town, but does nothing to address the one gigantic problem in Boston – the legislature.  If we have the right to expect our local government to operate openly, we certainly should demand no less when it comes to our state government.  There is no valid excuse.


So we can start by contacting our legislators and asking for their help in passing this law.  Ask not only for their vote, but for them to passionately campaign and work for its passage.  Request they reach out to fellow lawmakers, to the House and Senate leaders, and anyone else who might aid in this battle.


Talk is cheap.  Demand action.  Ask to know what they are doing to try and help this bill pass.  Don’t be diverted or distracted with political misdirection.  If they oppose the bill, get their reasons for doing so and if you disagree, explain why. 


If you don’t know who your state representative or senator is, look it up.  Or email me and I will look it up for you.  This is that critical. 


And remember – if you don’t think transparency is important, your elected officials won’t think so either.


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

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