In an editorial in today’s Newton Tab, the newspaper announced that they are formally challenging the city’s interpretation of the Open Meeting Law with the Attorney General’s Office.
Since 2010 as part of the budget process, every year the mayor invites all of the aldermen to attend closed-door briefings about the proposed budget. Rather than a single meeting with all 24 aldermen, it is broken up into a series of smaller meetings, each with fewer than a quorum of aldermen.
In general, the Open Meeting Law is intended to force substantial meetings between elected officials to be held in public rather than behind closed doors. In this case, whether the Open Meeting Law should apply comes down to a series of questions.
Deliberations vs Discussion – If the meetings entail “deliberations” the Open Meeting Laws kicks in. The mayor says that these briefings involve “discussion” rather than “deliberations”. That sure sounds like one fine distinction.
Quorum – the Open Meeting Laws kick in whenever a quorum of an elected group meet. In this case, each briefing had less than a quorum’s worth of aldermen attending. The Tab’s question is – if you hold a series of identical meetings, each one with a sub-quorum and all 24 aldermen attend one of these meetings, isn’t that just a transparent attempt to subvert the Open Meeting Law. The Tab points out that this sounds very much like “a system in which a rotating minority of councilors attended private meetings to consider matters that were not permissible under open meeting law”. That’s a quote from a 2008 case involving Boston City Councillor Michael Flaherty in which the Appeals Court found that there was a violation of the law.
According to the Tab editorial, the city seemed to be taking a fairly strong position that there is no issue here. City Solicitor Donnayln Kahn was quoted as saying that the idea of Open Meeting Laws applying here was “ridiculous” and is later quoted as saying “we’re not going to change the way we do things”.
Personally, I think the Open Meeting Laws at times are very unwieldy, inflexible and overly restrictive. That of course is beside the point since it is the law. I think though that the Tab has raised a question worth getting a legal opinion on from the Attorney General’s office. It does appear that these meetings are clearly an attempt to skirt around the edges of Open Meeting Law. That doesn’t mean though that they are a violation of that law. The Attorney General’s office is the one to make that call.