AG's Office Recommends Fines Against Two Local Public Bodies for Intentional Violations of the Open Meeting Law
After taking over enforcement of the Open Meeting Law in July 2010, the AG's Division of Open Government was given the authority to take and investigate complaints, bring enforcement actions, issue advisory opinions and issue regulations. Upon receiving complaints alleging open meeting violations against the Wayland Board of Selectmen and the Otis Board of Selectmen, the Division of Open Government conducted a thorough and extensive investigation, and concluded that there was sufficient evidence that the public bodies had intentionally violated the Open Meeting Law. The Attorney General's Office has referred the cases for administrative hearings and recommended a $1,000 fine against each body.
"When our office was granted authority of the Open Meeting Law last year, our goal was to promote greater transparency and uniform compliance with the law throughout state government," AG Coakley said. "This process has allowed us to hold accountable the public bodies that have committed violations, and in instances where those violations were intentional, we have the proper tools to enforce strict penalties."
These are the first investigations by the Attorney General's Office that have now led to allegations of intentional conduct to avoid the state's Open Meeting Law. In the first year since taking over enforcement of the OML, The AG's office has reviewed more than 110 complaints, issuing a variety of determinations and advisory opinions.
WAYLAND BOARD OF SELECTMEN
On October 7, 2010, the Division received a complaint alleging that the Board violated the Open Meeting Law when a "quorum," or majority, of the Wayland Board of Selectmen gathered before the scheduled meeting time on July 8, 2010 and engaged in substantive communication on public business within the Board's jurisdiction, but outside of the regularly posted meeting. The complaint was originally filed with the Board on August 5, 2010. The board then responded on August 17, 2010 and in accordance with the law, sent a copy of that response to the AG's Office.
The AG's office reviewed the town's local cable access broadcast of the meeting, which showed a majority of the board's members gathering before the scheduled meeting time, and deliberating quietly on the appointment of potential candidates to a local town board. In addition to reviewing the broadcast, the office also reviewed emails, meeting minutes, and conducted interviews with board members. The investigation convinced the Division of Open Government that the board had violated the Open Meeting Law. It also convinced the Division that there was evidence of an intentional violation. Therefore, the matter will now be scheduled for a hearing pursuant to 940 CMR 29.07(3). The Division will recommend that the Board be assessed a fine of $1,000.
OTIS BOARD OF SELECTMEN
On October 8, 2010, the Division received a complaint alleging two violations against the Otis Board of Selectmen, claiming that a quorum of the board held a meeting at the Otis Poultry Farm to discuss possible disciplinary action against the town's police chief. The meeting on August 9, 2010 allegedly occurred without posting notice of the meeting, or opening the meeting to the public. The Division then learned that members of the board continued to discuss the matter for days after the initial meeting, but there were no scheduled public meetings during the ongoing communications.
After reviewing the original complaint and the board's response, in addition to reviewing emails and conducting interviews with board members, the Division determined that the board violated the OML twice. First, a quorum of the Board deliberated during the meeting at the Otis Poultry Farm, without posting notice, retaining minutes, or opening the meeting to the public, as required by the law. Second, a quorum of the Board engaged in serial communications about a public matter within the Board's jurisdiction sometime between August 9, 2010 and August 19, 2010. The Division was convinced that there was evidence that the violation was intentional. Therefore, the matter will be scheduled for a hearing and the Division will recommend a fine of $1,000.
In accordance with the OML and the Attorney General's regulations, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) will be appointed to conduct the hearings. The ALJ will determine whether the violations were intentional, whether a fine should be imposed, and the amount of any fine.
For more information on the Open Meeting Law, see the Attorney General's Open Meeting Law webpage.