Town: officials didn’t violate Open Meeting (but will meet publicly anyway)

The Belmont Citizen Herald is reporting that Belmont’s legal counsel has issued a response to the Middlesex District Attorney that claims town officials who met behind closed doors to formulate plans to discuss the consolidation of School and Town services were not doing so in violation of the State’s Open Meeting Laws. The firm of Kopelman and Paige, which represents Belmont, sent a five-page memo in response to a request by the Middlesex District Attorney Robert Bender. The letter, by attorney John Giorgio, argues that the group wasn’t violating the law, but adds that the group will meet publicly in the future. The nub of Giorgio’s argument is that the so-called “Officer’s Group” wasn’t official established nor did it have any official authority or parameters about group membership.  He said that the group met informally and there were no formal votes of the Board of Selectmen, School Committee, or Warrant Committee, during any of the meetings, BCH reports, citing a case from 1991 in which a group of citizens in Hanover, Massachusetts, acted as a search committee, under the auspices of a school superintendent, for the purpose of finding candidates to fill a school principal position. Because the Superintendent was not a government body, the ruling by the State’s Supreme Judicial Court, the search group couldn’t be considered one either — but was merely an informal extension of the Superintendent’s job.  Moreover, the memo states, the group “has never taken the position that members of the general public were unwelcome to attend meetings of the group.”

The BCH article, by Tony Schinella, takes issue with that, noting that the meetings were never posted publicly and “members of the group also openly refused to allow the public or press to attend meetings, with the exception of one meeting in February where the Citizen-Herald was allowed to sit down with the group for about 30-minutes to discuss the group’s work.”

I’ll add that, upon learning of the group, I suggested that attendance at Officers Group meetings be broadened to include more members of School Committee. That idea was rejected, as well.

Giorgio goes on to note that the Warrant Committee has a number of subcommittees at work on issues that do not meet publicly, as has been the case for a long while, but that the WC will now begin complying with Open Meeting and posting the day, time and location of all those subcommittee meetings. Gee….Thanks!

At some level we shouldn’t be surprised by this opinion…nor should the Officers Group members take too much comfort in it. This is not an opinion rendered neutrally, rather it’s a response to an ongoing investigation by counsel for the defendents. Had the town asked Kopelman and Paige their opinion up front on the legality of such a group, they may well have been advised to steer clear of the closed door meetings and, instead, to have the officers group do their business in strict adherence to OML. The fact that the officers and WC are now anxious to abide by those laws suggests that they know they crossed the line. That said, its up to the Middlesex DA to decide whether or not any actual OML violation occured. We’ll be waiting for that opinion in the coming weeks.