By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Closed-door government

The Boston City Council, having been found in violation of the state’s open-meeting law earlier this year, has come up with an all-too-typical response. According to Boston Herald reporter Ed Mason, council members today will take up an 80-page report that it commissioned urging the state to exempt them from the law.

Council president Maureen Feeney tells Mason that the law presents “challenges” and is “confusing.” Before I go any further, you should know that the law does nothing more than require governmental bodies such as the city council to conduct the public’s business in public, and to provide adequate notice of when its meetings will take place.

Councilor Michael Flaherty is quoted as saying that the law creates a “chilling effect,” claiming, “You can’t even have a conversation with colleagues in the hallway or in a session.” That’s an interesting observation. The law says that a quorum — that is, a majority — of members cannot discuss official business outside the context of a legal, publicly announced meeting.

If Flaherty had said, You can’t even have a conversation in the hallway with six or more colleagues about city business, that would be accurate. It would also underscore the absurdity of his complaint.

The law doesn’t even require public meetings when there is a good reason for them to be held behind closed doors. Various exceptions are allowed, most typically to discuss contract negotiations and lawsuits.

Any journalist, community activist or public watchdog who’s spent any time dealing with municipal government will tell you that the open-meeting law ought to be strengthened, especially with regard to punishing violators.

The law is a burden only to public officials who think the public is a burden.

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5 Comments

  1. LFNeilson

    The OML does need more teeth. The strongest points are that the DA will investigate complaints, and that any action taken in an illegal meeting can be overturned. Here in Maine, a citizen has to file suit in superior court to get the ball rolling.One very heavy cudgel is the embarrassment factor. About 25 years ago, the Wilm. library board tried to censure one of its members. Word got out of what would happen, and several observers were at the scheduled meeting. When the board members read their statements in support of the censure, it was observed that all the statements appeared to have been typed on the same typewriter. The DA overturned the censure, and the entire board resigned, except for the woman who was the subject of the censure.It does work, in some cases. The problem is that secret meetings are usually, well, secret.It helps to have citizens attend meetings and follow issues. Sometimes you can sniff something out, like if a board votes on a matter that hasn’t been discussed in open session.I always let board members know that I am watching and that I expect them to adhere to the OML. I make no apologies for being a pain in the gluteus maximus.—Larz

  2. The Arranger

    As a small-town newspaper guy, I’ve always thought that three-member boards should have some exemption from the law. It does become burdensome when two colleagues on a board are barred from discussing any issue outside a public meeting. The result is that they ignore the law or they communicate through a third party, which the allow doesn’t allow. If the law were observed strictly, the Board of Selectmen meeting would last seven hours.

  3. the zak

    Our Boston City Council is budgeted for about a hundred people but central staff and the leadership of the staff director routinely deflect or delay or deny access to public records.

  4. the zak

    An extract from the Report to the Rules Committee of the Boston City Councilby paul.walkowski at cityofboston.govhttp://SunshineBoston.blogspot.com

  5. the zak

    Please send Tabs 1-5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 for theReport to the Presidentand Committee on Rules and AdministrationAugust 2008Addressing the Effect of Judicial Decisionson the Boston City Council'sOperation and Statutory IndependencePrepared by:Paul Joseph WalkowskiSpecial Projects Assistant to the President andCommittee on Rules & AdministrationTabs 1-5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 aren't in the Reportand are listed in the Table of Contents as           > Table of Contents           >           > Letter to the President           > About the Author           > Executive Summary ……………………… Page 2           > Overview & History …………………….. Page 4           > Form of government & methodology ………… Page 6           > Case Summaries ………………………… Page 8           > Effect of Decisions ……………………. Page 24           > The importance of the city council's           > internal exemption …………………. Page 26           > A. Generally ………………………. Page 27           > B. The Historic basis for exemption…… Page 30           > Remedial Responses …………………….. Page 40           > Proposed G.L. Affecting the           > relationship between the executive and           > legislative branches of government …… Page 41           > Political options ………………….. Page 41           > Addressing the Open Meeting Law ……… Page 43           > Open Meeting Law changes necessary …… Page 64           > Proposed G.L. on Open Meeting Law           > Option 1 ………………………….. Page 69           > Option 2 ………………………….. Page 70           > Option 3 ………………………….. Page 71           > Open Meeting Law …………………… Page 72           > Conclusions …………………………… Page 76           > A note about the salary ordinance ……. Page 78           > Case Law ……………………………… Tabs 1-5           > 1821 Charter ………………………….. Tabs 6           > 1854 Charter Revisited …………………. Tab 7           > 1885 Charter, Shift of Executive Powers ….. Tab 8           > 1909 Charter, Consolidation of Power …….. Tab 9           > 1948 Plan A Charter Offered …………….. Tab 10           > 1951 Charter Revisions, Council Exemption … Tab 11           > 1910 Finance Commission Report ………….. Tab 12           > 1909-1910 List of Incidental Expenses ……. Tab 13           > Presentation of Charter History …………. Tab 14Cc:http://medianation.blogspot.com

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