The Monomoy Regional School Committee violated the state's Open Meeting Law in March when it discussed a topic that was not included on a posted meeting notice, the Attorney General's Office ruled this week.
In a Nov. 23 letter, Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Carnes Flynn of the office's Division of Open Government wrote that an investigation found that the committee did not intentionally violate the law. “Instead, we find that the committee was mistaken regarding the legal standard for what topics must be included on meeting notices,” she wrote in the five-page letter.
The complaint was filed by former school committee member Karen Ryder. She alleged that at the committee's March 12 meeting, the March 7 Chatham Special Town Meeting vote on a feasibility study for building a senior center on property the school leases from the town on Stepping Stones Road was discussed but was not listed on the agenda. Voters approved the feasibility study, although the school committee opposed releasing the land for use as a senior center location.
The topic was brought up under the superintendent's report section of the March 12 agenda. Typically under that topic, Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter reports factual information or raises last-minute issues, but doesn't expect committee discussion of those items, according to Flynn's letter.
In this instance, Carpenter planned to share the results of the March 7 vote with the committee but did not anticipate discussion. However, committee members spent about 10 minutes discussing the special town meeting, comments made at that session, and comments made under the public comment section of the March 12 meeting by resident Seth Taylor.
According to Flynn's letter, the Attorney General's Office has declined to find violations of the Open Meeting Law when there is a lack of specificity under an agenda item involving reports given by public officials. However, best practices dictate that the chair of a committee solicit more detail from public officials regarding topics to be discussed at a meeting under a “report” item, Flynn wrote, so that the meeting notice can include greater detail.
Because Carpenter anticipated bringing up the special town meeting vote at the March 12 meeting, it should have been discussed when he and then-chair Jackie Zibrat-Long met to put together the agenda. Failure to include it in the meeting notice therefore was a violation of the Open Meeting Law, according to Flynn.
However, the violation was not intentional, she wrote. The committee has not previously violated the law in a similar manner, not was there any evidence of an intent to violate the law, Flynn concluded. Rather, the committee was “mistaken” regarding the standard for including topics on the meeting notice.
Taylor, a former Chatham selectman, didn't buy that explanation. Taylor said in a letter to The Chronicle that he called Carpenter and asked that the special town meeting vote be placed on the agenda of the next school committee meeting. When he arrived at the March 12 meeting, he said, he was surprised that it was not included on the agenda. Carpenter apologized, Taylor said, and said he would bring the matter up during under the superintendent's report segment.
“There was no doubt in my mind then, and there is none now, that the item was deliberately left off the agenda,” Taylor wrote. Such actions should be strongly discouraged, he added. “The AG let the school committee and Dr. Carpenter off the hook this time, but the subtext of the letter of violation lets them know that similar actions will be viewed harshly in the future. Let us hope that all members of the school board and the superintendent are attentive to that caution.
Flynn ordered the committee's “immediate and future compliance with the law's requirements and note that any future similar violations may be considered evidence of an intent to violate the law.”
After reviewing the letter, current school committee chair Tina Games said the committee agrees that this is a grey area. “While surprised by the conclusion, we respect the decision – and appreciate the understanding that this was an unknowing and unintentional violation, and will take it as an opportunity to improve the clarity and transparency of our meeting agendas,” she said in an email.
Both Long and Ryder did not reply to emailed requests for comment.