Easton Finance Committee Works to Understand Open Meeting Law
Since Town Officials said FinCom was in violation of the law in November, members have been working to understand it.
When it comes to complying with the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, the Easton Finance Committee plans to play things safe moving forward.
"It’s pretty safe to say that if four of us show up for a meeting, we’re not going to have the meeting," Finance Committee Chair Carol Nestler said. "I don’t want to do this again."
Nestler and other Finance Committee members have been in conversations with Town Clerk Jeremy Gillis and the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office since Gillis said the committee violated the law in November.
Gillis said a violation occurred when the committee posted minutes fo the November meeting, which was held dispite the fact that the committee did not have a quorum. When other members saw the minutes it resulted in an unadvertised meeting through "serial deliberation," he said.
"It sounds like we’re calling each other and talking which is not the case at all," Nestler said. "He’s saying the serial deliberation would be if we had a meeting with four people and then had a meeting with six people, that that’s serial deliberation."
He was asked by the Finance Committee to attend one of its meetings last month to discuss the issue.
Because he said the incident was unintentional, he did not file a complaint to the Attorney General's Office, which has not made any official ruling on a violation.
"You can’t use information you gained unlawfully to conduct a meeting, so as soon as five members – as soon as a fifth member looked at this set of minutes or one of the four members called a fifth member and told them what happened, that in itself forms a meeting, and that meeting wasn’t posted, therefore it was outside the constraints of the Open Meeting Law," Gillis told Patch last month.
Looking for clarification, FinCom Vice Chair Kim DuBois emailed the Attorney General's Office, which declined to comment on the specific issue because an official complaint was not filed, according to the response email sent to Patch by Nestler.
The AG's office did highlight a ruling made in Carver last month in which a complaint was made against the Carver Planning Board.
The complaint came after the Carver Planning Board, without a quorum, met in conjunction with the Board of Selectmen to appoint a new member. According to the ruling, a violation did not occur.
According to the ruling:
A 'deliberation' by a public body is only those communications made 'between or among a quorum of a public body.' Id. Here, the Planning Board did not engage in deliberation because a quorum was not present.
Gillis said the Carver case did not pose a similar comparison.
"The Carver case was a meeting of two boards to elect another member," he said in an email to Patch. "The Easton 'case' involved direct deliberation of one board without having a quorum, gaining information, coming to conclusions (ie opposing the Reserve Fund transfer), thus showing deliberation, and then sharing that information (deliberating) with another member, which then created a non-posted meeting."
Gillis also told FinCom members last month that a meeting of more than one member with a town or school department head to discuss Fiscal Year 2014 budgets needed to be advertised.
Nestler said the committee will air on the side of caution when it comes to budget discussions, although the law poses challenges. When two FinCom members meet with the school department, for instance, an agenda will be posted 48 hours in advance and minutes will be posted afterwards, she said.
"We’re trying to do our best," she said. "We actually want more open communication as a committee. That’s one of the reasons why two years ago we decided to go on TV because we wanted people to oversee the procedure. We have 30 seconds on town floor to talk about all this complicated stuff but we wanted it to open up. Yeah, I get the intention of [the Open Meeting Law]. Looking at some of these things now, it does seem like it makes it more difficult – more difficult than we’d like it to be. But, you don’t want back room deals going down either. I understand that perspective."
Nestler said it was important for the board to understand the law as much as possible.
"I think if you don’t understand why you did something wrong, you can’t fix it," she said. "If you make a mistake, and you’re not sure why, then there’s no way to correct it going forward. So, you have to understand it to be able to fix it."