Heading into “Sunshine Week,” AG Coakley Sheds Light on Open Meeting Law Efforts
Office Has Responded to More Than 4,000 Inquiries, Issued 81 Determinations, and Conducted or Participated in 56 Trainings across Commonwealth
BOSTON – Leading into “Sunshine Week” next week, Attorney General Martha Coakley today provided an update on the work of her office’s Division of Open Government (the Division) since it assumed responsibility for the implementation of revisions to the Open Meeting Law (OML) on July 1, 2010.
“Since assuming responsibility for enforcement of the Open Meeting Law, our office has made it a priority to educate public bodies and members of the public about the law and offer guidance to ensure clarity and compliance,” said AG Coakley. “We have continued these efforts by developing new educational tools and training methods and by making our determinations accessible in a searchable online database. Through our efforts we hope to advance the key objectives of the Open Meeting Law—good governance, transparency, and civic participation.”
Upon assuming responsibility for enforcement of the OML, AG Coakley created the Division of Open Government to ensure a continued and consistent focus on the law by educating individuals about the OML, enforcing the OML, and acting as a readily accessible resource for members of public bodies, members of the public, municipal officials, and the press. Since its creation, the Division has focused its efforts on educating members of public bodies and the public about the revisions to the OML and offering advice and guidance on the law.
To date, the Division has responded to more than 4,000 telephone and email inquiries from members of public bodies, municipal counsel, and the public, handled 267 complaints, resolved 123 complaints, and issued 81 determinations. Staff from the Division have conducted or participated in 56 presentations to organizations representing a cross-section of statewide groups with an interest in the OML.
The most frequently occurring violations of the OML were deliberation outside of a properly posted meeting, including email deliberation; entering into executive session for an improper purpose; failure to follow proper procedures to convene an executive session; failure to include sufficient detail in meeting notices; and failure to create open and executive session meeting minutes. The remedial actions most frequently ordered by the Division were immediate and future compliance with the OML; attendance at a training; creation or amendment of open or executive session minutes; release of open and executive session minutes; and certification that the public body members have received and reviewed the determination. In three instances, the Division found an intentional violation of the OML, referred the matter to a hearing, and recommended a $1,000 fine be imposed on the public body. Two of the matters have been settled and the other matter is currently awaiting a hearing.
“We have now gone through the first full year of the ‘new’ Open Meeting Law, and the Attorney General and her team in the Division of Open Government are doing a great job,” said Peter Hechenbleikner, Town Manager for the Town of Reading and current Chair of the Open Meeting Law Advisory Commission. “The Open Meeting Law Advisory Commission has had a positive effect on the process of implementing regulations and the law, serving as a sounding board and advisor to the Division. Working through the education of the public, communities, and state agencies on the new aspects of the law is an important and time consuming task. I am confident that the additional work in implementing this law will be done to the current high standards of the Division of Open Government, and will reflect the intent of the law as well as the practical considerations of implementing it.”
“When the Attorney General’s office took over exclusive enforcement of the Open Meeting Law in 2010, it had two overarching goals: to bring greater consistency to the law’s enforcement and to enhance understanding of the law among public officials and citizens. In the nearly two years since, it has continued to make notable progress on both counts. For me, one milestone this year that stands out was the AG’s launch of a searchable website for its OML determinations,” said Robert J. Ambrogi, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and its designee on the Open Meeting Law Advisory Commission.
Providing education and guidance about the OML is a continued priority of the Division. 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:
o The Division will be unveiling a new web training next week to serve as a resource to members of the public and public bodies seeking to understand the requirements of the OML. The presentation is divided up into six segments that last approximately an hour in whole. It will be posted on YouTube and will be accessible from the AG’s Open Meeting Law website.
o In October 2011, the Division developed an interactive online database in an effort to provide greater transparency and access to the office’s decisions. The Open Meeting Law Determination Lookup can be searched by public body name, municipality, key word, and other criteria.
o The Division has also updated the Guide to the Open Meeting Law and Frequently Asked Questions regarding the Open Meeting Law online.
o The Massachusetts Bar Association has partnered with the AG’s Office to conduct a "Train the Trainer" session on the OML for attorneys who advise municipal and other public sector clients. The session will teach the attorneys how to conduct trainings for public bodies seeking guidance on OML compliance and those that have been ordered to undergo training after a finding of violation. The training will be held on March 21, 2012.
Additionally, on November 11, 2011, the AG’s Office promulgated regulations under the OML that authorize remote participation in meetings by members of public bodies under certain circumstances. The regulations, which allow public bodies to take advantage of modern technology in certain circumstances, require that remote participation first be adopted by the appropriate authorizing entity, and permit remote participation in public meetings when physical attendance is unreasonably difficult due to personal illness, personal disability, emergency, military service, or geographic distance. Also, in December 2011, the AG’s Office proposed a regulation that, if adopted, would clarify the standard for a finding by the AG’s Office of an intentional violation of the OML. The proposed regulation was published in the State Register on December 23, 2011. The AG’s Office is currently considering public comments received during the public comment period, which closed on January 19, 2012.
For more information on the Open Meeting Law, see the Attorney General’s Open Meeting Law webpage.