The Sandwich Board of Selectmen violated the state’s Open Meeting Law late last year by not posting a specifically detailed announcement about why they were meeting behind closed doors, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office has found.
The AG’s office also found that the board of selectmen last year “failed to regularly review executive session minutes for public release.”
A letter outlining the findings were sent last week to Barnstable County Commissioner Ronald R. Beaty Jr. who filed an open meeting law complaint about the Sandwich selectmen in January.
Mr. Beaty complained that the selectmen failed to let the public know the topics they were discussing in executive session on December 20, 2018.
“I periodically check on town and state boards and committees to make sure public bodies adhere to the Open Meeting Law,” Mr. Beaty said at the time. “If they don’t adhere, things get sloppy.”
Specifically, Mr. Beaty said the selectmen failed to be specific about which union contracts they would be discussing in executive session—a meeting that is closed to the public.
When public bodies enter executive session, the chairman must announce the purpose of the session, “stating all subjects that may be revealed without compromising the purpose for which the executive session was called,” Mr. Beaty wrote in his complaint, citing a portion of Massachusetts General Law.
Under the Open Meeting Law, selectmen and other boards can go into executive session to discuss collective bargaining or litigation strategies if holding such a conversation in public might negatively impact the negotiations.
However, Mr. Beaty said, the board should identify the collective bargaining unit with which they are negotiating.
The AG’s office agreed.
The law specifies that the notice of an executive session must contain "sufficient specificity to reasonably advise the public of the issues to be discussed at the meeting,” assistant attorney general Elizabeth Carnes Flynn wrote in her letter to Mr. Beaty.
Town Attorney Michele E. Randazzo had argued at the time that the selectmen did say on December 20 that they were entering executive session to discuss contract negotiations. They were not more specific because they were discussing almost all of the town’s union contracts—including the department of public works, police, fire, library, clerical and dispatch—all of which were up for renewal at the end of June 2019.
Mr. Beaty’s complaint also said the selectmen had failed to meet periodically to review executive session minutes in 2018, and the AG’s office agreed.
“We find that the Board [of selectmen] reviewed executive session minutes several times in 2017, but in 2018, it did not review its executive session minutes a single time to determine if continued non-disclosure was warranted,” the AG’s letter said.“...We find that a gap of sixteen months between reviews of executive session minutes violates the Open Meeting Law's requirement to review executive session minutes for potential release at reasonable intervals.”
Ms. Randazzo said at the time that although “reasonable intervals” are not spelled out under the law, the Sandwich selectmen do periodically review their executive sessions and, where possible, make the minutes of those meeting available to the public.
Ms. Randazzo has said that in response to Mr. Beaty’s request that the selectmen and town employees receive Open Meeting Law training, that the town’s law firm, Koppelman & Paige, offered classes this spring.
“The Board takes its obligations under the [Open Meeting Law] seriously, and will again sponsor an OML training by Town Counsel in the spring, for multi-member boards and committees, and their staff liaisons, in an effort to remind officials and personnel of the technical requirements of the law,” Ms. Randazzo wrote to the AG’s office last year.
Mr. Beaty said last week he is pleased by the ruling.
“I am happy to see that my ongoing pursuit of open, transparent and accountable government is yielding positive results,” he said in an emailed statement.
“The public’s right to know regarding all levels governmental operations is of paramount importance,” Mr. Beaty added. “Moreover, I hope to serve as a role model to others to bring this same kind of dogged pursuit of transparency and accountability to federal, state, and local government as well.”