Forum set to help people understand Open Meeting Law's guidelines

Monday August 20, 2012

LENOX -- Starting next month, the Office of Mass achusetts Attorney Gen eral Martha Coakley will hold four educational forums across the state to discuss the Open Meeting Law. The first session -- the only one in Berkshire County -- will be held at the Lenox Town Hall on Sept. 12 at 6 p.m.

The free public session will be conducted by lawyers and staff from the office's Division of Open Government as a way to help local governments and the public understand the law's guidelines.

The law requires that most local government meetings be made open and accessible to the public, with the exception of meetings that might be held in what the law refers to as executive or closed sessions. The 200-member state legislature is exempt from the law.

Until 2010, the law had been enforced by local district attorneys, until it was assigned to the state attorney general's office as part of the Ethics Reform Act.

In the nearly two years since the new policies have been in effect, local governments have been required to make information and meeting minutes readily available online, while also clarifying the complaint process for violation of the law, among other measures.

"Our office has made it a priority to educate people about the law," stated Emalie Gainey, spokesperson for Coakley. "We believe that our efforts have helped promote the key objectives of the Open Meeting Law -- good governance and transparency."

The move to instill more inclusiveness in local government has been met with a mostly positive response, said Lenox Town Manager Gregory Federspiel.

"Since the law was revamped, we've really increased and improved our accessibility to members of our community by having 24-hour access to online postings," Federspiel said.

Federspiel expects town board members, elected officials, and some members of the community to turn out for next month's meeting, but added that other than an increased focus on beefing up the town government's online presence, he hasn't observed any significant day-to-day changes in procedures since the attorney general's office took over from the Berkshire District Attorney's office.

Since assuming responsibility for the law's enforcement, the division has conducted 65 similar informational meetings throughout the state, and issued 135 rulings. Of 78 violations, only three were found to be intentional. The office can fine local governments up to $1,000 if violations are deemed intentional.

Under the requirements of the law, individuals must file a complaint against a local governmental body within 30 days of the alleged violation to the town committee or board, which then has 14 days to review it and send it to the attorney general's office. Anyone dissatisfied with the local government's handling of the complaint can file it directly to the attorney general's office for review.

Since the changes to the law, one complaint has been filed against the Lenox Board of Selectmen. Filed by local resident and Berkshire Beacon publisher and editor George Jordan III, the complaint alleged that the board failed to post notices for a meeting about the Kennedy Park Over look project.

Jordan's complaint also alleged that the board failed to record and report meeting minutes. While the violation was alleged to have occurred on Oct. 27, 2010, it was ultimately rejected by the attorney general's office because it was formally made to the Select Board nearly 10 months later -- falling far outside the 30-day time frame set by the law.

According to Jordan, not much has improved since the attorney general's office took over.

"I thought there would be some positive changes, but nothing's changed," he said. "How was I supposed to file the complaint on time when I didn't even know the meeting was happening in the first place?"

Federspeil said the information session next month will help dispel any confusion surrounding the law's guidelines.

"The meetings should offer a good training opportunity for everyone involved, whether you serve on a board, or are just a citizen. It's a good outreach program," he said.

Jordan had filed similar complaints in the past when the law was still monitored by the county district attorney's office.

"I'm not sure how much from me they want to hear," said Jordan, "but I want to see the people from the attorney general's office -- I want to hear what they have to say."


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