School Committee to Acknowledge Open Meeting Law Violations

The Hamilton-Wenham Regional School Committee violated the state Open Meeting Law six times this spring by improperly posting subcommittee meetings where the full committee met to discuss the 2012 budget.

The School Committee violated the Open Meeting Law at six meetings where the 2012 school budget was discussed in March and April, according to the board’s attorney.

The violations were not intentional and will be corrected, according to Naomi Stonberg, a Wellesley-based attorney who represents the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School Committee.

School Committee Chairman Alexa McCloughan is expected to read a letter acknowledging the violations at Thursday night’s School Committee meeting at at 7 p.m.

“My client has accepted responsibility and admitted they violated the law,” Stonberg said.

The violations occurred when the Finance Working Group – a subcommittee of the full nine-member School Committee – held several meetings in the school superintendent’s office at the Center School in March and early April.

While those meetings were properly posted and open to the public, a quorum of the School Committee attended and took part in deliberations. At one meeting – March 24 – all nine School Committee members were at the subcommittee meeting, according to meeting minutes.

“At some of the Finance Subcommittee meetings there was a quorum of the full School Committee,” Stonberg said in an interview.

Stonberg noted that while the full School Committee was deliberating at subcommittee meetings, each subcommittee meeting was properly posted and open to the public.

There were also at least nine members of the public that did attend at least one of the meetings, according to meeting minutes, including Michelle Bailey, Peter Britton, Bea Britton, Bill Dery, Bob Gray, Catherine Harrison, George LaMontagne, John McWane and Bruce Wadleigh.

Harry Pierre, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s office - which handles and administers the Open Meeting law and investigates complaints - would not comment on the specific Hamilton-Wenham case. Pierre and said nobody was available from the AG's Division of Open Government to comment.

While School Committee members not on the subcommittee can attend a subcommittee meeting, they should not take part in the discussion, Stonberg said.

Members of the committee that do not sit on the subcommittee should “sit in the audience and participate as members of the public,” according to the Attorney General’s office’s guide to the state Open Meeting Law.

“They did engage in the discussion,” Stonberg said about the School Committee members who attended the subcommittee meetings.

“They may address the public body with the permission of the chair, and may state their opinion on matters under consideration by the subcommittee,” the AG’s guide states.

The School Committee received training about the Open Meeting Law last summer and plans are being developed for another training this summer, Stonberg said.

“I hope it is resolved,” Stonberg said.

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office Frequency Asked Question about whether School Committee members can attend a subcommittee meeting in which they are not a member.

If a subcommittee of a public body holds a meeting and members of the public body, who are not members of the subcommittee, wish to attend the meeting, must the public body post a meeting notice?

No, as long as the public body does not engage in a deliberation. Members of a public body may wish to attend a meeting of a subcommittee of that public body, even where those members are not part of the subcommittee. In those cases, they may sit in the audience and participate as members of the public. They may address the public body with the permission of the chair, and may state their opinion on matters under consideration by the subcommittee. They may not discuss matters as a quorum, or discuss topics which are not under consideration by the subcommittee. Doing so would constitute a deliberation, and a separate meting notice for the public body would be required. The subcommittee convening the meeting must still post its regular meeting notice.

Jay Burnham May 05, 2011 at 11:51 AM
How's that "trust" and "transparency" thing working out for you? Not so well, obviously. Read more at the North Shore Living blog: http://tinyurl.com/3ctun9g
Robert Foringer May 06, 2011 at 12:10 PM
It just continues to get better with this board..people wake up
Michelle Bailey May 06, 2011 at 02:15 PM
Let's stop pointing the finger and looking for ways to speak poorly of our neighbors who voluntarily work on our behalf on the School Committee. Would you have come to this meeting if it had said School Committee instead of Finance Working Group? I went because I saw the agenda posted on-line and the topic was of interest to me. Other members of the public were there too. There was NO conspiracy to mislead the public here. There have been many growing pains with the new Open Meeting Laws for all town boards and committees. This is just a case of learning the new rules the hard way.
Jay Burnham May 06, 2011 at 03:02 PM
Michelle misses the point and sadly, she is mistaken about the "growing pains with the new Open Meeting Laws." The violations perpetrated by the School Committee were no different under the "old" rules. So the SC can not use "the new law" as an excuse. Add to that the fact that the SC members were trained on the new law and the result seems to be a committee that deliberately violated the law. Also, an apology would have been appropriate and nice. Lastly, let's consider our friends and neighbors that work tirelessy and voluntarily on behalf of the taxpayers and residents but do NOT sit on the School Committee.


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