The Public’s Right to Know
An ongoing series on the challenges of making open government work in Saugus
By Mark E. Vogler
Only three Open Meeting Law complaints have been filed so far this year in Saugus. All of them were initiated by The Saugus Advocate against the Saugus School Committee.
With the state Attorney General’s Office issuing a determination letter last week which concluded the School Committee violated the Opening Meeting Law multiple times, we’ll take a look in this edition at why and how those complaints were filed.
This article is also intended to share some insight with our readers on what’s involved with the filing of an Open Meeting Law complaint, particularly how to spot potential violations and how to research past determinations that may assist a citizen in the filing of a complaint should he or she decide to do so.
If somebody believes they have witnessed or are aware of a potential violation of the Open Meeting Law, it’s their right as a citizen having an interest in the meeting – whether a resident of Saugus or not – to file a complaint.
Here’s a chronological summary of The Saugus Advocate’s complaints and the results:
Jan. 30: The School Committee holds a meeting that is posted in the agenda notice to take place in the regular School Committee Room at 23 Main St., the administrative offices for Saugus Public Schools. The committee begins the meeting in the superintendent’s conference room instead of the School Committee Room.
Feb. 12: The Saugus Advocate files its first complaint, which alleged a violation occurred when the School Committee opened its meeting in the Superintendent’s conference room instead of in the School Committee Room as posted. The paper also alleged there was insufficient detail in the meeting notice and questioned whether the executive session “was no more than a budget discussion behind closed doors as the School Committee has no involvement in non-union contract negotiations.”
March 6: Lynnfield Attorney Howard L. Greenspan, who was hired to represent the Saugus School Committee, denies any violations in his response to The Saugus Advocate complaint. “The Committee followed a long time practice of opening public session in the Superintendent’s conference (room) when the first item for agenda was Executive Session,” Greenspan wrote.
March 6: The Saugus Advocate files a second complaint with the School Committee. This complaint alleged a violation because of a lack of specificity in the minutes for the Jan. 30 meeting.
March 21: Dissatisfied with the response from the School Committee, The Saugus Advocate requested that the Attorney General’s Division of Open Government review its first complaint.
March 24: The Saugus Advocate files a third complaint with the School Committee. This one alleges a lack of specificity in the posting of agenda notices by replacing the wording for the meeting location “School Committee Room” with the words “Roby Administrative Building.” The Saugus Advocate complaint said, “It appears the Saugus School Committee changed the wording in an effort to justify its decision to open its Jan. 30 meeting in the superintendent’s conference room instead of the School Committee Room – the posted location for the meeting.” The complaint also noted that three meeting notices that didn’t list the precise location in the Roby Administrative Building violated the Open Meeting Law “because members of the public should not have to guess where in the building the meeting is being held.”
March 30: Attorney Greenspan again denies any Open Meeting Law violations in his response to the newspaper’s second complaint. But he notes that “the School Committee has agreed to convene any meetings in open session in the School Committee room even if the first item is Executive Session which is traditionally held in the Superintendent’s conference room.”
Greenspan also argues “There are no facts to support your inference that the Executive Session had more to do about budget than contract negotiations.”
April 9: Dissatisfied with the response from the School Committee, The Saugus Advocate requested that the Attorney General’s Division of Open Government review its second complaint.
April 9: Attorney Greenspan again denies any Open Meeting Law violations in his response to the newspaper’s third complaint. But he also concedes “While the Committee disputes your allegations that it intended to mislead the public, the Committee will post the place of the meeting as Roby School Building, School Committee Room in future postings in order to prevent any possible confusion to the public.”
April 30: Dissatisfied with the response from the School Committee, The Saugus Advocate requested that the Attorney General’s Division of Open Government review its third complaint.
June 26: Assistant Attorney General Kevin W. Manganaro of the Division of Open Government issues a five-page determination, concluding that the School Committee violated the Open Meeting Law multiple times, confirming most of the allegations raised in The Saugus Advocate’s three complaints.
“Following our review, we find that the Committee violated the Open Meeting Law by meeting in a location other than what was listed on the meeting notices and posting insufficiently detailed meeting notices,” Manganaro wrote. “Additionally, we find that the Committee convened in executive session without a proper purpose. However, we find that the Committee’s Jan. 30 open session meeting minutes meet the minimum requirements of the Open Meeting Law.”
Manganaro later elaborated on why he agreed with The Saugus Advocate that the School Committee’s Jan. 30 executive session should have been held in open session: “When convening in executive session under Purpose 2, public bodies must identify the name of the specific non-union personnel that is the subject of discussion, unless disclosure would compromise the Committee’s negotiating position.
“Here, the Committee could not have identified the non-union personnel, because the discussion did not address any individual employees. Rather, it was more general conversation that would reach beyond any single employee or bargaining unit. This raises other concerns, however. In prior determinations, we have determined that such deliberations are akin to a budget discussion and may take place only in open session. …”
A reporter’s overview: The process is a long and tedious one. The Saugus Advocate spent more than 40 hours researching Open Meeting Law cases, writing the complaints to the School Committee and then referring the complaints to the Attorney General’s Division of Open Government. It took more than four and a half months from the time of the initial complaint being filed with the School Committee until a determination was issued by the Division of Open Government. Some citizens might be reluctant to file an Open Meeting Law complaint because it’s a potentially confrontational or adversarial process: The person who is filing the complaint initiates it with the body it’s complaining about. The public body which is the subject of a complaint can also use a public meeting to discredit or disparage the citizen filing the complaint as the School Committee did at a March 15 meeting when it spent 14 minutes mocking The Saugus Advocate for filing its complaints (see related story in this issue, “It’s no joke”). The Division of Open Government encourages the settlement of complaints locally. But The School Committee made little effort to seek a local resolution, prompting The Saugus Advocate to refer all of its complaints to the Division of Open Government.
There’s a cumbersome process that has to be followed before a complaint gets reviewed by the Division of Open Government. There are specific deadlines which apply to filing initial complaints and then referring them to the Attorney General. For instance, the Open Meeting Law Guide states: “The complaint must be filed within 30 days of the date of the violation, or the date the complainant could reasonably have known of the violation. The complaint must be filed on a Complaint Form available on the Attorney General’s website, www.mass.gov/ago/openmeeting. When filing a complaint with a local public body, the complainant must also file a copy of the complaint with the municipal clerk.”
The guide also states: “The Division of Open Government will take complaints from members of the public and will work with public bodies to resolve problems. While any member of the public may file a complaint with a public body alleging a violation of the Open Meeting Law, a public body need not, and the Division of Open Government will not, investigate anonymous complaints.”
Citizens who need guidance in filing a complaint can contact: Division of Open Government, Office of the Attorney General, One Ashburton Place, Boston, MA 02108; telephone: 617-963-2540; www.mass.gov/ago/openmeeting; OpenMeeting@state.ma.us. To research past Open Meeting Law determinations, google www.oml.ago.state.ma.us/Search.aspx?section.
ABOUT THIS SERIES: With the flood of complaints The Saugus Advocate has received over the past year alleging violations of the state Open Meeting and Public Records laws, the paper has decided to take an in-depth look at concerns about the Public’s Right to Know in Saugus. We plan to monitor various town committees and commissions to see whether they comply with the laws. We also plan to interview local and state officials to get their views, and we will assess what the town is doing to make local government more transparent. We invite readers to call or email us to express their concerns on whether they feel government is operating openly or in the dark, and what they believe can be done to make local government more transparent.