Friday, June 20, 2014
Apology Due in Foxboro OML Situation
This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, June 20, 2014
AN INSIDE LOOK
By Bill Gouveia
When the Opening Meeting Law works, it is usually because citizens decide their right to have public business done out in the open is worth the difficult process required to make that happen.
So thank you, Heather Harding.
For those who may not know, Harding is the person who filed a series of OML complaints with the Town of Foxboro and eventually the state attorney general’s office over the actions of Foxboro selectmen. So far, two of her complaints have been determined by the AG’s office to have been actual violations.
As a result, the Foxboro board has been subjected to what passes for harsh punishment under the rather toothless terms of the OML. They must review the AG’s training video on deliberations, and certify they have done so in writing within 30 days.
Oh, the horror. That should teach them, right?
But at this point, the punishment is not the most important thing to come out of this debacle. What truly matters is there seems to be at least some willingness on the part of state officials to uphold this weak law. That will hopefully inspire more people like Heather Harding to stand up for all our rights, even when it may not be popular to do so.
Harding correctly pointed out that selectmen engaged in what the AG’s office called “serial deliberation outside of a properly posted meeting”. That began when Selectman Lorraine Brue sent a carefully-worded email to some officials questioning the legality and wisdom of something she had voted to support just the night before.
Brue’s email questioned whether or not the board had violated the OML 24 hours earlier when they voted unanimously to send two of their members to an informational meeting with representatives of an applicant for a liquor license. Though she tried to temper her email’s intent with a heading including the phrase “no response please”, it was quite evident she was engaging in discussion that was improper outside of a public meeting.
Her excuse concerning why she had not brought up her issues in front of the public rather than away from them was a poor one and lacked believability. Her email started a chain-reaction between other selectmen and the town manager as well as town counsel.
In effect, they undid in private what they had voted to do in public. You can’t do that without at least being exposed. But the punishment is a big nothing, and it can be argued Selectman Brue and some of her colleagues achieved their political objective without having to do it in front of the voters who elected them.
So far there has been no real admission of guilt or apology from the board or the individual members. None is required under the terms of their punishment, but it would seem they owe the townspeople something in this regard. After weeks of insisting they had done nothing wrong, it was found they in fact had.
There are still complaints pending that have some connection to those already adjudicated. It could very well be selectmen have been advised by their legal counsel not to comment for fear of incurring liability for both themselves and the town.
And politically, remaining mum on this subject is probably the smartest thing selectmen can do. OML violations are seldom taken very seriously for long. Allowing this whole mess to pass slowly into oblivion would work to their advantage.
Some have suggested Brue should resign over this matter. Without making light of her actions, they simply do not call for a move that extreme.
But Selectmen Brue has clearly been found to be in the wrong here. So has her board as a whole, and some other individual members as well. They owe their constituents not just an apology, but a sincere one.
Expecting Foxboro residents to believe selectmen’s attempt to cure one OML violation by committing another was an unintentional action is to insult their intelligence. Selectmen did something wrong, and they got caught.
As Heather Harding said some many months ago, “"It seems to me purely cut-and-dried. You say, 'Yeah, I made a mistake' and you move on."
Let’s hope Foxboro selectmen take that good advice to heart.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime area town official. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.