LENOX -- City and town government meetings can be held behind closed doors only for 10 specific purposes, citizens can file complaints about alleged violations either through local boards, the state attorney general's office or the court system, and board chairmen can limit public comment at meetings.
That was the takeaway for about 70 residents and local officials from around the county who attended a recent informational session presented by deputies of state Attorney General Martha Coakley at the Lenox Town Hall.
After a detailed run-through of the Open Meeting Law, which was handed out and also was displayed on slides, the two assistant attorneys general, Jonathan Sclarsic and Hanne Rush, fielded more than 60 questions, mostly submitted in writing but also verbally.
During the public comment section of a meeting "the chair has control of who can or can't speak," said Sclarsic in response to several questions. "If they put public comment on the agenda and then decide not to have it, that's really at the discretion of the chair. The Open Meeting Law does not require public comment."
He also pointed out that even if public discussion is part of the posted agenda, "the public body is not required to call an item placed on the agenda, it just can't talk about something not on the agenda that was going to be reasonably anticipated."
"Public comment is always going to be at the option of the chair," Sclarsic explained. "If they want to stop public comment, even if it's on the agenda, they have that right under the law."
Rush stated that meeting notices can be posted online, instead of at a Town Hall location accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, if the municipal clerk notifies the Division of Open Government at the AG's office that a city or town has adopted an alternate posting method such as on a municipal website.
But a paper copy of the notice has to be kept by the city or town clerk for inspection by the public during normal business hours.
She also emphasized that a quorum of board or council members cannot discuss an agenda item before or after a meeting, nor can they do so via email or on social media.
"I definitely caution members to be very careful," Sclarsic explained. "I'm not trying to silence you, you certainly have the right as individuals to express your opinion, you should feel free to do that, but you should be very careful about communicating to other board members via social media or websites."
The multi-step procedure for filing complaints alleging violations of the Open Meeting Law was described in detail, along with the AG office's timeline for prompt responses. About half of the formal complaints filed result in findings of violations, nearly all unintentional, said Sclarsic.
Copies of complaints can be requested from public bodies. Rulings by the attorney general's office are available for inspection online.
Alternatively, any three registered voters or the state attorney general can file a complaint with a county superior court.
Overall, the AG's office fields about 2,500 telephone and email queries per year; most are answered within 24 hours.
In response to questions, the attorneys stated that written meeting minutes, whether drafted or approved, become available to the public within 10 days after a request. Minutes become part of the permanent public record, as do supporting documents, and never can be destroyed, Sclarsic said.
Minutes can be prepared from audio recordings of a meeting made by a board member.
Executive session minutes need to be provided upon request within 10 days, unless the reasons the meeting was held behind closed doors are still current. Private meetings on lawsuits filed against a town or city can remain off the record until the case is resolved.
The attorney general's contact information for Open Meeting Law concerns is (617) 963-2540 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
When a meeting can be closed ...
The state attorney general's office lists 10 reasons for a city or town board to go behind closed doors during or following an open public meeting:
1. Discussion of an individual's reputation, character, health, discipline, charges, complaints but not professional competence.
2. Conducting strategy sessions to prepare for negotiations, to conduct collective bargaining or contract negotiations with nonunion personnel.
3. Discussing strategy for collective bargaining or litigation (for litigation, if holding an open meeting would have a detrimental effect and the chairman so declares on the record beforehand).
4. Security personnel or devices.
5. Criminal misconduct.
6. Acquisition of real property.
7. Comply with law or grant-in-aid requirement.
8. Preliminary screening for employment, if holding an open meeting would have a detrimental effect and the chairman so declares on the record beforehand.
9. Confer with mediator on litigation or decision.
10. Trade secrets in the course of activities conducted by a public body as an energy supplier.
Source: www.mass.gov/ago/open meeting