Selectmen Reject Open Meeting Law Violation Charge

By: Tim Wood

Chatham Municipal Airport.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Selectmen last week rejected an allegation that the signing of a federal airport grant contract by the town manager violated the Open Meeting Law, but agreed that greater transparency was appropriate for some ad hoc committees that had previously not complied with the law's requirements.

The Open Meeting Law complaint was filed by James Fulton, who alleged that the law was violated when Town Manager Jill Goldsmith signed a contract for a $347,000 Federal Aviation Administration grant without either the selectmen or the airport commission holding a public meeting to accept the funds.

“What happened here was wrong,” Fulton said at the Oct. 13 board of selectmen's meeting, alleging that officials were rushing to complete the airport master plan update without adequate public input.

The grant will fund an assessment of the environmental impacts of the various options in the master plan, including those related to construction of a new administration building, hangars and fuel facility. Usually the town pays a share of the cost of federal programs, but thanks to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the federal grant will cover the entire environmental assessment cost.

Goldsmith said the airport commission voted March 10 to move forward with the environmental assessment, and the grant documents were prepared by consultant Gale Associates and signed by commission chairman Peter Donovan. Under her authority as town manager she is empowered to accept and sign grants.

The airport master plan update has been a subject of contention between the commission and residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the George Ryder Road airport. One of its recommendations, calling for a change in the poor visibility landing pattern, has particularly irked residents, who say it will lead to aircraft flying low over dense residential and business areas. Airport proponents say it will be safer and less noisy than the existing landing pattern.

A series of public listening sessions planned by the commission in March were canceled due to the pandemic. The commission is scheduled to meet Oct. 28 and the environmental assessment grant is on the agenda for discussion.

Town Counsel Patrick Costello recommended the board reject the complaint because no specific meeting of the board was cited in the complaint. The Sept. 3 date on the complaint refers to the date Goldsmith signed the grant.

“The mere fact that there may be a sentiment that the board should have discussed this matter or should have taken action on this matter during the course of a duly posted open meeting is not the same as saying that the board did in fact engage in such a meeting and violated the procedure requirements of the Open Meeting Law,” Costello said at the Oct. 13 meeting.

“There was no open meeting to complain about,” agreed Selectman Jeff Dykens.

Fulton said he had no intention of pursuing the violation further, and said the board agreed to mediation of the dispute.

“Let's try to mediate a solution for what the people of Chatham would like to have done with this contract, which would allow me to withdraw my Open Meeting Law complaint,” he said. “I'd love to withdraw it.”

The board voted unanimously to reject the complaint.

At the request of resident Stephen Buckley, the board reviewed the practices of working groups and advisory committees posting meetings, keeping minutes and holding open sessions. Groups like the working committee set up by Town Manager Jill Goldsmith to review council on aging locations did not hold public meetings or keep minutes; Buckley said he had considered filing an Open Meeting Law complaint, but decided to seek clarification first.

Costello said determinations have been made that the Open Meeting Law applies to ad hoc committees appointed by a public body that is itself subject to the law, but groups put together by a town official not subject to the law, such as the town manager, to advise them are not subject to the law if they are advisory. He acknowledged that the statute reads “somewhat hazily.”

As a policy, selectmen could require advisory groups to post meetings and keep minutes, he said. “That's up to the board to establish,” he said. “It's a fine line.”

The board took no action, but agreed to follow the guidelines outlined by Costello.