Jul 162014

 Chairman Josh Degen tells the Board of Selectmen that compliance with the Open Meeting Law Art Campbell | The Groton Line

Chairman Josh Degen tells the Board of Selectmen that compliance with the Open Meeting Law “This is serious. This is really serious.”

Monday evening, the Groton Board of Selectmen followed up on the Massachusetts Attorney General’s recent determination that the board violated the state Open Meeting Law this spring. Led by Chair Josh Degen, members discussed how to ensure that no more OLM violations occur. All members of the board agreed that more Open Meeting Law training was required, but there were differences of opinion on whether and for whom the training should be mandatory.

The violation occurred when then-Chair Peter Cunningham made a series of phone calls polling BoS members on a possible board action. After the phone calls were disclosed:

  • Cunningham and Selectmen Anna Eliot and Stuart Schulman said they thought the phone calls and polling was not a violation of the OML.
  • Selectmen Jack Petropoulos disagreed and thought the calls were a violation.
  • Current Chair Josh Degen talked to Cunningham twice about bringing the idea forward, told Cunningham the phone calls might be a violation, and that the discussion could only take place in a public meeting.
  • Town Manager Mark Haddad said the calls were not a violation.
  • The The Groton Line filed an Open Meeting Law complaint, alleging a violation.
  • In the town’s official response to the complaint, Town Counsel David Doneski stated the calls were not a violation of the law.

The Groton Line appealed Doneski’s response to the Attorney General’s office, which determined that in fact a violation of the Open Meeting Law had occurred.

Degen introduced a two part plan to ensure compliance with the OML in the July 14 meeting.

“What I’m proposing is that we ask a representative of the AG’s office to come out and do an Open Meeting Law training seminar with every elected and appointed board. You either have to attend, or view the video of that Open Meeting Law seminar and then sign a document saying that they have viewed it and then turn that document in to the Town Clerk’s office,” he said. He later added that the document would include a line saying that they would comply with the Open Meeting Law.
The first part of Degen’s plan, to sponsor a training seminar, was embraced by all members of the board.

The second phase, to require office holders to either attend an OML seminar or certify that they had viewed the video of the to-be-arranged Groton seminar, provoked some discussion. Office holders are currently required to certify to the town clerk that they have reviewed conflict of interest and ethics documents required by the state. The OML training would be the first local requirement for training or knowledge by office holders.

“I’m kind of ambivalent about this and I’m not sure that I like the idea of requiring people to take a test,” Shulman said. “Maybe the Board of Selectmen needs to take the course. I’m not so sure that anyone else needs to take it, because we violated the Open Meeting Law.”

Degen’s proposal did not include any kind of test, just attendance at, or viewing a video of, a seminar.

“I think holding the training is a good thing, and making it available to people is a good idea. Whether you’re going to compel them to attend or not,,, I think that’s more complicated,” Cunningham said.

“I don’t mind having the training,” Eliot said, “making it mandatory is kind of onerous on some of the members of the volunteers. We have a great deal of volunteers, and I really appreciate the time and effort that they give, but it’s up to the chair of the committee that they serve on to make sure that they comply.”

Degen was adamant that the training be required of selectmen and members of boards and committees reporting to the board.

“This is serious. This is really serious. If you don’t want to do it, then don’t serve,” Degen said.

Open Meeting Law Resources

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office has a series of six OML training videos online.

Three two-hour long OML seminars, each with a webinar component, sponsored by the Attorney General’s Office are planned for this fall, according to its website.

Speaking from the floor, Finance Committee Vice-chair Gary Green told the selectmen that, “The Open Meeting Law is not obvious. There are so many things related to the Open Meeting Law that are not obvious. You run into a member of your committee on the street, and you’re like ‘Uh, what can we say? Can we say ‘Hi?’ I think it’s critical that we bring training, and I don’t think it’s sufficient to hand out a packet that explains the law. it’s legalize, and it’s not the legalize that’s important, it’s how we interpret that legalize that’s important. I think it’s critical both for citizens to understand the Open Meeting Law and what they can and can’t do, as well as sits on a board. I wouldn’t do a test, but I absolutely think having a video that everybody can see and asking people to state that they’ve seen that is reasonable.”

Art Prest, newly appointed to the Finance Committee, said, “In some type of training, we can ask questions. Watching a video, I can’t ask questions. I’ve been to many meetings of committees and I sit there and I think ‘Did that just happen? I think they just violated the Open Meeting Law,’ but I don’t know. I’d like to have more information and more intelligence and more education. I think it’s important; I think it’s critical.”

A motion was offered by Cunningham to reach out to the Attorney General’s office to arrange an OML seminar in Groton passed quickly, without debate.

Implementing the second half of Degen’s proposal was more difficult. Petropoulos and Degen each needed several tries at formulating a motion spelling out the new requirements on office holders reporting to the BoS and support staff — that they either attend the seminar or view the video of the seminar and certify that to the town clerk.

Cunningham, Degen, Petropoulos, and Schulman voted in favor of the training and certification requirement. Eliot abstained.