Selectmen Brush Up On Open Meeting Law

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Board of Selectmen News

News

CHATHAM Saying Selectman Amanda Love clearly didn't intend to circumvent the Open Meeting Law with a Jan. 9 email she sent to fellow board members and to the press, selectmen nonetheless acknowledged the apparent violation and underwent a short refresher course from town counsel Tuesday.

The Cape Cod Chronicle filed a complaint with the board about the email, which urged board members to consider promoting Deputy Fire Chief Peter Connick to the position of chief upon the current chief's retirement. Town Counsel Kathleen Connolly said that expressing an opinion in an email to fellow board members falls under the law's definition of “deliberation,” “even if nobody responds” to the email.

Selectman Seth Taylor said the fact that Love included members of the press in her email “clearly suggests that there was no desire on her part to abuse, or hold any business privately.” But he acknowledged that the email very likely violated the letter of the law.

Board member Dean Nicastro agreed, saying he personally believes the Open Meeting Law is “outrageously interpreted and applied by faceless bureaucrats in Boston to an extreme.” The Massachusetts Attorney General's published guide to the Open Meeting Law, which provides an example of a violation that closely mirrors the situation in question, is an authoritative source, Nicastro said. But he stressed that the guidebook is only an interpretation of the law.

For her part, Love read a statement affirming that she did not intend to violate the law, and that she would be sure to deliberate in public in the future. She said that the substance of her email – that the town needs to address “massive turnover” in town staff and promote from within – remains valid.

“And other issues regarding personnel must be addressed,” she said.

Selectman Chairman Jeffrey Dykens cut short her comments, saying the agenda item aims to address an Open Meeting Law compliant, not an opportunity for her to “pontificate” on employee turnover.

Acting on The Chronicle's suggested remedy to the violation, selectmen invited town counsel to provide a brief review on the Open Meeting Law. Connolly told the board that revisions to the law in 2010 and 2012 did not include a full revision of the definitions used in the law. While there remain some “gray areas” in the legislation, she said, the definition of a deliberation is not among them.

While some email communication among board members is allowed under the law, including straightforward discussions of meeting scheduling, the best way for one board member to provide written communication to other board members is to send the email through the town manager, allowing her to distribute it to the others, Connolly opined.

A public body member can even email documents to other members on an official topic, provided that they do so without presenting an opinion, and provided that other board members do not reply, counsel said.

The board voted unanimously to have town counsel write a reply acknowledging The Chronicle's complaint and to send it to the Attorney General's office for review. By statute, the board has 14 business days to officially reply to the complaint.