The Easton Finance Committee got a crash course in the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law Tuesday night.
The committee was visited by Town Clerk Jeremy Gillis, who went into detail about Open Meeting Law and what constitutes as a violation. Gillis was asked to attend the meeting by Finance Committee members.
The meeting comes after what Gillis said was a recent violation of the Open Meeting Law by the Easton Finance Committee. On Nov. 7, 2012, the committee conducted a meeting and posted minutes with only four people present, Gillis said. In the nine person committee, five people must be present in order for the meeting to take place.
The four members of the committee met that night with Police Chief Allen Krajcik, Fire Chief Kevin Partridge, Department of Public Works Director David Field and Town Accountant Wendy Nightingale to discuss November Special Town Meeting warrant articles.
"We sort of always worked under the impression that if there was not a quorum, we could meet, we couldn't vote, we couldn't deliberate," Finance Committee Chair Carol Nestler told Gillis at Tuesday's meeting, which has since aired on Easton Community Access Television. "That's sort of what we operated on. We did have some people here who had taken time out of their days to do a presentation."
Gillis, however, told members that the meeting shouldn't have moved forward that night.
"The only things you should have done that night would have been to immediately adjourn the meeting [and] set a new time for the meeting - or set a recess, get on your cellphones and try to get someone here [to] try to achieve a quorum," he said. "Other than that, nothing should have happened."
The violation of Open Meeting Law occurred when the minutes were taken and submitted, Gillis said. The result is "serial deliberation," where a quorum learns of business conducted at a meeting outside of a posted meeting.
"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.
Gillis said the Finance Committee's violation of the law was not blatant or intentional, and he used Tuesday as a "teaching moment" to avoid future violations of the law.
"A complaint can be filed with the Attorney General and we can get an actual ruling from the Attorney General on what happened," he said. "Generally, I like to keep things in house and not involve the state to begin with – try to get them as teaching moments – clean up our own messes before we involve the Attorney General. But, generally there is no real penalty unless it is blatant and they really meant to do it."
Gillis also told Finance Committee members that future meetings involving more than one member, even if they are small meetings to discuss departmental budgets, need to be posted as subcommittee meetings.
However, one person meeting with a department head and then reporting back to the committee during a posted meeting would not be a violation of the Open Meeting Law. Instead it would be "a function of the committee," he told Finance Committee members.
Nestler clarified with Gillis that if one member met with the Department Heads on Nov. 7 and reported back at the next posted meeting, it could have prevented any violations.
"So, in that scenario, it would have solved the problem of - these people took a night of their life to come see us," she said." [It would have] not violated the law, technically."