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Public’s right to know “denied,” newspaper declares in complaint against Saugus School Committee

The Saugus Advocate has filed a complaint against the Saugus School Committee, alleging that the committee may have violated several provisions of the State Open Meeting Law (OML) at its Jan. 30 meeting. Specifically, the complaint filed by Saugus Advocate Editor Mark E. Vogler alleged that the entire five-member committee:

  • Failed to open its meeting inside the School Committee Room as was announced in its agenda for the meeting that was posted on the bulletin board at Town Hall and on the Town of Saugus website.
  • Did not provide “sufficient specificity for the public to understand” the agenda.
  • May have conducted an improper executive session that was “no more than a budget discussion behind closed doors.”

“The Saugus School Committee should be required to do this meeting over again after it is properly posted with an agenda that has sufficient detail and convened in a location that informs and allows the public to be physically present,” Vogler wrote in a two-page complaint against the committee.

Vogler said the committee “should also be ordered to attend training on the OML as it is clear that there is a lack of understanding of the requirement of the Open Meeting Law.”

Vogler showed up at the School Committee Room at about 3:18 p.m. for the Jan. 30 meeting. The committee’s agenda announced it would begin in “Open Session” at 3:30 p.m. Members would then vote to go into Executive Session to discuss “non-unit contract negotiations and to reconvene in Open Session.”

But Vogler, who had gotten to the School Committee meeting about 12 minutes early, didn’t see the five School Committee members come into the School Committee Room until about 4:53 p.m. when all five members “emerged from a back hall that leads directly to the Superintendent’s Office.

“It was then apparent to me that the first part of the agenda, including the Executive Session, took place in some other part of the building, presumably in the Superintendent’s private office,” the newspaper’s complaint noted.

“There were no signs posted upon entry to the School Committee Room indicating the meeting had been moved nor was the agenda amended to indicate such,” it continued.

“Therefore, I, as well as other members of the public, were denied the opportunity to be physically present at the start of the meeting and hear what was discussed during the open session part of the meeting,” Vogler wrote.

 

Committee review and response required

The School Committee has 14 business days to meet and review the complaint and must respond to the complaint in writing, sending a copy of the complaint along with a description of any action taken to address the complaint to the state Attorney General’s Division of Open Government. The committee must also send the newspaper a copy of its response. If the newspaper is not satisfied with the School Committee’s response, it can file a copy of its complaint with the Division of Open Government.

Meanwhile, the minutes for the Jan. 30 Open Session and the Executive Session were on the committee’s agenda for last night’s School Committee meeting to approve.

The School Committee’s alleged violation comes less than a week after the Division of Open Government issued a Jan. 24 decision that the School Committee violated the OML for a lack of detail in its minutes for a March 16, 2017, Executive Session. “We order the Committee’s immediate and future compliance with the Open Meeting Law, and we caution that similar future violations may be considered evidence of intent to violate the law,” wrote state Assistant Attorney General Kevin W. Manganaro of the Division of Open Government.

The allegations cited in The Saugus Advocate’s complaint are based on case law that dates back to the evolution of the OML in Massachusetts. The OML was enacted “to eliminate much of the secrecy surrounding deliberation and decisions on which public policy is based,” according to a 1978 ruling in the case Ghiglione vs. the School Committee. The law requires that meetings of a public body be properly noticed and open to members of the public, unless an executive session is convened. Public bodies may enter a closed, executive session for any of 10 purposes noted in the OML, provided that the chair of the public body first announces in open session the purpose of the executive session, “stating all subjects that may be revealed without compromising the purpose for which the executive session was called.”

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