Leading into "Sunshine Week," AG Coakley Updates Public on Her Office's Implementation of Open Meeting Law
In Nine Months, Office Has Responded To More Than 1,400 Inquiries, Issued 29 Determinations, And Conducted Or Participated In 36 Trainings Across Commonwealth
On July 1, 2010, Attorney General Coakley's Office assumed responsibility for interpretation and enforcement of the OML from the state's District Attorneys following the passage of the Ethics Reform Act of 2009.
To ensure a continued and consistent focus on the Open Meeting Law, AG Coakley created the Division of Open Government. The Division's mission is to educate individuals about the OML, enforce the OML, and act as a readily accessible resource for members of public bodies, members of the public, municipal officials, and the press. The Division has focused its efforts on educating members of public bodies and the public at large about the revisions to the OML, establishing a complaint process, and resolving Open Meeting Law complaints.
To date, the Office has responded to 1,424 telephone and email inquiries from members of public bodies, municipal counsel, and the public, handled 76 complaints, and issued 29 determinations. Members of the Division of Open Government staff have conducted or participated in 36 trainings and recently announced a series of seven regional educational forums on the Open Meeting Law across the Commonwealth between March and June. The first forum was held in Brookline on March 2 nd.
"The goal of the new law is to promote uniform interpretation of the Open Meeting Law and ensure greater transparency in government," said AG Coakley. "As we move forward, we will continue to work with these governmental bodies, news media, and the public to ensure that we reach this shared goal of good governance."
"The Attorney General's office has done a commendable job of ramping up its new Division of Open Government. Since taking over sole responsibility for enforcing the open meeting law in July, the office has developed rules for handling complaints, embarked on a statewide education program, fielded countless inquiries about the new law, and begun to issue final determinations in cases. Two key goals of the new law were to promote uniformity in its enforcement and to enhance education about its requirements. So far, the AG's office has made notable strides in achieving these goals," said Robert J. Ambrogi, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and designee on the Open Meeting Law Advisory Commission.
"I am delighted that the Attorney General's Office, through its Division of Open Government, has embarked on an extensive and ongoing educational program to explain the new Open Meeting Law requirements to community leaders at all levels. It is refreshing to see a focus on education and a commitment to listen to community leaders about issues and concerns regarding the new law. Community input has already helped to shape regulations on meeting posting requirements, and going forward that same level of community input will help to craft workable regulations on a host of other open and emerging issues in the law," said Peter Hechenbleikner, Town Manager for the Town of Reading and Massachusetts Municipal Association's designee on the Open Meeting Law Advisory Commission.
A priority of the Division is providing education and guidance about the OML. Accordingly, the Division of Open Government has developed a host of publicly accessible resources intended to assist the public with understanding and complying with the OML:
- Online: The Division developed a comprehensive website that provides Frequently Asked Questions regarding Open Meeting Law online, an Guide to the Open Meeting Law, and posted determinations online to provide guidance about interpretation and enforcement the Open Meeting Law.
- Trainings: The Division has conducted or participated in 36 in-person, trainings for members of public bodies, municipal officials, municipal counsel; and members of the public. On March 2, 2011, the Division held the first of seven regional Open Meeting Law educational forums in Brookline where we provided an overview of the law. Future regional educational forums will be conducted in Dracut (3/23); Bridgewater (4/6); Dalton (5/11); Barnstable (5/18); Northampton (5/25) and Worcester (6/1). To view more details about the forums, see the AG's press release.
Among the benefits of the new OML law cited by various stakeholders are:
- Replacement of different state, county and local open meeting laws with one uniform law that applies to all state, local and regional public bodies.
- New, more effective enforcement of the Open Meeting Law.
- Enforcement by the Attorney General rather than District Attorneys promotes uniform interpretation and ensures greater focus on enforcement by the AG's office, whose mission and institutional experience includes civil matters such as Public Records Law interpretation and enforcement.
- Broad range of administrative authority for the Attorney General to order compliance, nullification of public body action, mandatory Open Meeting Law compliance training, civil penalties, and other appropriate action.
- Complainants required to provide prior notice of complaints to offer the public body an opportunity to cure violations.
- Attorney General authorized to promulgate regulations related to enforcement
- Promulgated emergency regulations to coincide with the July 1, 2010 effective date.
- Finalized regulations effective October 1, 2010 following four hearings in Boston, Worcester, Springfield and New Bedford.
- Adopted final regulations that enabled internet notice posting for municipal public bodies; clarified the complaint process and the certification process; and further refined what would be considered evidence of intentionality.
- Open Meeting Law updated to address modern technology.
- Law clarified to prohibit e-mail or other written deliberation by a public body not conducted in an open meeting.
- The statute enables the Attorney General to authorize remote participation using telephone and/or Internet communication, so long as a quorum is present at the meeting location and remote participants and people at the open meeting are clearly audible to each other. Our office solicited feedback from the public on the subject of remote participation and we are actively reviewing our options.
- Posting of open meeting notices allowed through internet posting for public bodies.
- New focus on education and training of public body members to foster understanding of the Open Meeting Law and prevent violations.
- New requirement that all persons serving on public bodies certify to the AG in writing that they have received a copy of the Open Meeting Law and AG guidelines.
- The Division of Open Government conducted or participated in 36 trainings between April 2010 and March 4, 2011.
- On March 2, 2011 our office launched the first of seven regional educational forums we are hosting throughout the Commonwealth.
- New provisions clarify what is required of public bodies with regard to the creation and maintenance of minutes and other documents and codifies much of what was recommended previously by the District Attorneys. For instance, meeting notices must state all topics with sufficient specificity to give a member of the public an understanding of what or whom the public body plans to discuss.
For more information on the Open Meeting Law, see the Attorney General's Open Meeting Law webpage.