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

Tag: open-meeting law Page 1 of 2

Salem mayor calls for the Legislature to be covered by the open meeting law

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. Photo (cc) 2020 by the office of Gov. Charlie Baker.

Well, isn’t this a lovely surprise on a Monday morning. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll has written an op-ed piece for The Boston Globe calling for an end to the state Legislature’s exemption from the open meeting law — a law that requires virtually all city and town boards and many state commissions to conduct their business in public. It’s a bit too late for Sunshine Week, but we’ll take it. Driscoll writes:

If 351 cities and towns can adopt budgets, engage in policy debates, hire and evaluate staff, and create local laws — all while meeting the rightly rigorous standards of the Commonwealth’s Open Meeting Law — there is no valid reason why our state colleagues cannot do the same.

Driscoll also notes that Massachusetts is one of only 11 states whose legislature is exempt from open meeting laws.

Similarly, the Legislature and the courts are exempt from the state’s public records law, and a succession of governors, including Charlie Baker, have claimed that their immediate staff is exempt as well.

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Last fall, our Northeastern journalism students contacted all 257 candidates for House and Senate seats and asked them whether they would support ending that exemption. Sadly, only 71 responded despite repeated emails and phone calls; but of those who did respond, 72% said they favored applying the public records law to the Legislature.

As with the open meeting law, Massachusetts is an outlier: it is one of only four states whose public records laws do not cover legislative proceedings.

The central argument Driscoll offers is unassailable. If cities, towns and state agencies can comply with the open meeting and public records laws, so, too, can the Legislature. It’s long past time to drag the proceedings of the Great and General Court out into the sunlight.

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide (III)

The New Haven Advocate, the city’s alt-weekly, has a nasty, brutish and short profile of Chris Hoffman, the spokesman for the New Haven school department who was the reluctant star of a video last week by Melissa Bailey of the New Haven Independent after he barred her from entering a school meeting.

The headline: “The Dark Side: From Journalist to Mouthpiece for Those in Power.” Ouch.

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide (II)

The New Haven Board of Education met last night to consider turning over the management of one of its public schools to a for-profit company — and had to postpone its meeting after the New Haven Independent’s Melissa Bailey pointed out that the board had not given 24 hours’ notice, as required under Connecticut’s open-meeting law.

This time, Bailey video-records Mayor John DeStefano to get his take on the various forms of transparency. And Abbe Smith, covering the story for the city’s daily paper, the New Haven Register, credits Bailey and the Independent for shutting down the illegal meeting.

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

A reporter shows up to a meeting of parents and officials from a for-profit company that may be contracted to take over their kids’ K-8 school. The school department has promised “transparency,” but the department’s spokesman bars the reporter from attending. What would you do?

Here’s what Melissa Bailey of the New Haven Independent did: She pulled out her pocket video camera and trained it on the spokesman, Chris Hoffman, for more than three minutes as he tried to explain the meaning of “transparency.” To Hoffman’s credit, he didn’t turn and run. The result, above, is highly entertaining. Here is Bailey’s story.

Bailey, in an email exchange with Media Nation, confirms that the meeting did not fall under the purview of the state’s open-meeting law, and so she did not have a legal right to be there. By barring Bailey, though, school officials managed to keep the public in the dark about an initiative that promises to be both consequential and controversial.

Oh, and be sure to check out the comments. Will Clark, who accuses Bailey of writing a “sensationalized story,” is the school department’s chief operating officer.

In Massachusetts, silence is literally golden

Deval Patrick

When state officials pay someone to go away, they often pay for that person’s silence, too. That’s what Boston Globe reporter Todd Wallack found in a review of “more than 150 large severance and settlement agreements signed by state agencies since 2005.”

More than half contained either a confidentialty or non-disparagement clause, and one in five contained both, Wallack reported in Sunday’s Globe. And the practice persists even though Attorney General Martha Coakley has ruled such clauses are illegal in most cases.

Wallack’s findings point to an unfortunate reality: Gov. Deval Patrick, despite his reformist credentials, is no more a fan of open government than his predecessors regarding information that could make him or his agency heads look bad.

As Wallack notes, it was a big deal when then-state treasurer Tim Cahill’s use of confidentiality agreements was exposed a few years ago. Now it turns out that the practice is far more widespread than anyone knew at the time.

Consider this story in context. In 2008, Colman Herman reported for CommonWealth Magazine that the public-records law was a shambles, and that Patrick — like his predecessors — had made it be known that he considered many of the executive branch’s actions to be exempt from the law,  a questionable proposition. (Note: I have contributed articles to CommonWealth, and my Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson is quoted in Herman’s story.)

Patrick was portrayed as having turned over records voluntarily despite his contention that he didn’t have to. But for advocates of open government, it’s clear that what’s needed in Massachusetts is root-and-branch reform. Anyone want to guess at the chances of that happening?

Update: Herman reports on some recent efforts to strengthen the law in a post for the New England First Amendment Center, but makes it clear that we’re a long way from true transparency.

Photo (cc) by Scott LaPierre via Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

The Phoebe Prince case and the right to speak

Phoebe Prince

The tragic South Hadley bullying case has led to a federal lawsuit charging that a town official denied a local resident his First Amendment right to speak at a public meeting. Luke Gelinas, the father of two kids in the school system, was tossed out of an emotional South Hadley School Committee meeting on April 14. He has now filed a civil-rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court. The Republican of Springfield reports on the suit here, and the Boston Globe here.

Then-School Committee chairman Edward Boisselle reportedly ordered Gelinas to leave after Gelinas invoked the name of 15-year-old suicide victim Phoebe Prince, violating a ground rule Boisselle had set. Gelinas was escorted out of the meeting room by two police officers.

The offending statement (pdf) that Gelinas delivered that night is a model of respectful decorum. In it, he called for the removal, resignation or censure of Boisselle, school superintendent Gus Sayer and high school principal Daniel Smith.

According to The Republican, at the April 28 School Committee meeting Gelinas was back, and apparently none too happy about his treatment two weeks earlier. He compared Boisselle — no longer the chairman — to Joseph Goebbels and Joseph Stalin. Shortly thereafter the ACLU sent a letter to the committee complaining Gelinas’ First Amendment rights had been violated at the April 14 meeting.

In June, Luke and Lorraine Gelinas and a third parent, Darby O’Brien sued the School Committee in Hampshire Superior Court, claiming the committee broke the state’s open-meeting law by approving a two-year contract extension for superintendent Sayer in executive session on Feb. 24.

The newly filed federal suit names Boisselle and the two police officers as defendants, but not the School Committee itself.

It’s hard to pass judgment on this without knowing the personalities involved and what, if any, attempts were made to settle this beforehand. But if Boisselle and company could have made this go away with a public apology, then they missed an opportunity that may not come around again.

And if Gelinas had simply been allowed to read his statement on April 14, it may never have occurred to him to compare Boisselle to a couple of genocidal monsters.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Picturing a $200 million high school

Those of you with good memories may recall that, last summer, Newton Mayor David Cohen barred the press from touring the city’s brand-new, $191 million Newton North High School. Later, he relented and allowed a reporter to take a look — but not a photographer.

Well, yesterday, as his time in office winds down to its final weeks, Cohen at long last allowed full media access to the school. The Newton Tab was even allowed to shoot a video.

Though it’s certainly positive that the press was finally able to take pictures, there was never any excuse for Cohen’s censorious behavior. The public deserved to see long before now what it was getting for the nearly $200 million it paid in tax money, either directly (through local property taxes) or indirectly (via state assistance).

More on the Newton North controversy

Newton blogger Chuck Tanowitz shares some thoughts on the battle between city officials and the Newton Tab over access to the Newton North construction site.

Meet the Tab’s new editor

It’s Newton Mayor David Cohen, who tells the Newton Tab’s Dan Atkinson that photos are “not essential” for reporting on progress at the Newton North High School construction site.

Earlier: “Meet the Tab’s new photographer.”

Meet the Tab’s new photographer

The Newton Tab reports that Alderman Ken Parker took a photo of the Newton North High School construction site with his iPhone and sent it along to the Tab. Parker says he didn’t do it surreptitiously, either. Amazing. Earlier item here.

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