Complaint Charges Committee Violated Open Meeting Law

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law

Gavel.

Charter Review Group At Odds Over Allegations

CHATHAM – Members of the charter review committee are at odds over an allegation of Open Meeting Law violations, with some members finding the complaint valid while others calling it “garbage” and “preposterous.”

“At no point in time has this committee in my opinion done anything except bend over backwards to try to adhere to open public process,” said committee member Seth Taylor, who called the complaint filed by property owner George Myers baseless.

Member Thomas Geagan, however, found the complaint valid and said the committee's credibility is on the line.

“I don't see transparency going on here,” he said at the group's May 21 meeting.

Myers' complaint alleges that the committee's three officers—chairman Elizabeth Taylor, vice chair Gloria Freeman and clerk Seth Taylor—withheld from the public and other members of the committee comments he had submitted about changes to the town's home rule charter being considered by the group, along with suggestions for other changes. Copies of notes that Freeman gave to Elizabeth Taylor for a discussion of a charter change at the May 7 meeting were not provided to other committee members, the complaint, filed May 15, also alleges.

“On information and belief, the CRC officers have intentionally 1) sought to withhold and/or delay disclosure of Ms. Freeman's notes to members, the public and me in an effort to minimize committee and public comment before a vote and 2) concocted an OML subterfuge for withholding the notes,” Myers wrote in the complaint.

The committee has until June 4 to respond to the complaint. Elizabeth Taylor said at last week's meeting that she would formulate a response and submit it to town counsel for review, but three members of the committee—Geagan, George Lane and Rick Leavitt—objected, saying they were not comfortable having the response go to town counsel without seeing it first.

“It would seem that there should be a consensus among this committee about what the response is going to be,” said Lane.

Even though the complaint specifically names the three officers and not the full committee, Taylor asked committee members to write out and read aloud their understanding of the complaint and possible resolutions. Lane, Geagan and Leavitt refused.

“I am not going to fill this out,” Lane said. “I feel like I'm in school.”

“The reality is that somebody has to keep track, somebody has to formulate a response,” Taylor said.

If the response is to come from the committee, members need time to think about it, Geagan said. “I don't want someone shoving a piece of paper in front of me and saying 'you've got five minutes to response to this and we may use that in our response as officers.'” If the committee expects voters to have confidence in charter changes it recommends, it's important to maintain credibility, he said.

The nine-member charter review committee is charged with reviewing the charter and recommending changes to town meeting. Appointed last year, the group had hoped to complete their work and bring the changes to the May 13 annual town meeting, according to its report in the annual town report. A running draft of changes is posted on the group's page on the town website. The document was last amended in 2015.

Seth Taylor said he did not believe Myers' allegations are a violation of the Open Meeting Law. The committee is not required to publicly post comments it received nor are notes by members public documents until introduced at a public meeting, he said. Myers has inundated the committee with comments and suggestions—35 emails containing some 275 pages, Elizabeth Taylor said—and is “harassing” the committee, said Freeman.

“This is really outrageous,” she said, calling Myers' complaint “garbage.” No other town committee posts or makes public comments submitted to it prior to those comments being discussed at meetings, she said. “He wants this committee held to a higher standard. Nobody does what he's asking us to do.” The Attorney General's Office, where the complaint will go if the committee denies it and Myers appeals, will “laugh at this complaint,” Freeman said.

She said she passed her notes along to the chairman because she could not attend the meeting in question due to a family medical emergency.

Taylor said she did not think the complaint was valid, adding that she has scheduled a meeting to discuss Myers' comments and suggestions. There will be further opportunities for input when public comment is solicited once the draft of the amended charter is finalized.

“One member of the public should not be taking so much of our time and business,” she said.

Myers clearly wants to be heard and the committee should consider if it is treating emailed comments and suggestions the same as those made in person at public meetings, Lane said.

“We're not looking at the reasons behind why he is filing this complaint,” he said. “We're more concerned did he meet it technically and what kind of credibility has he got. And I think that's wrong.”

Leavitt said he saw no downside to acknowledging the complaint and implementing Myers' suggested resolution to post all comments from the public on the committee's web page. Myers also suggested posting committee member amendments to the charter and distributing them at least five days prior to a meeting, and acknowledging written comments on amendments and including them in deliberations.

While Taylor said town counsel and selectmen have advised that there is no requirement to post all written comments received by the committee, Leavitt said whether or not that violates the Open Meeting Law, “we ought simply to do it.”

Leavitt, Lane and Geagan agreed that a violation had occurred, while Elizabeth Taylor, Freeman and Seth Taylor said the committee had not violated the law. Three members of the committee—Stuart Smith, John Bendas and Stephen Buckley—were absent from the May 21 meeting.

In an email, Elizabeth Taylor said the committee will meet again June 3 and may request an extension of the June 4 response deadline.

In January the committee discussed his request to have his comments posted on the website but the officers objected, Myers said in an email. Nonetheless he continued to submit comments but none were posted or discussed at meetings. He filed the Open Meeting Law complaints due to what he termed the “intentional suppression” of his comments.

“Although most of my comments opposed the multitude of charter changes being proposed and approved by the CRC...that is not a valid or lawful basis for suppressing and concealing my comments from the public,” he wrote.