Group: Massachusetts lawmakers' open meeting exemption unconstitutional

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BOSTON >> The Legislature's exemption from the requirements of the state's open meeting law is unconstitutional, a conservative-leaning think tank said Thursday, but Attorney General Maura Healey declined to wade into the dispute.

The Boston-based Pioneer Institute said the self-exemption restricts public access to certain legislative meetings and undermines the constitutional tenet that government be accountable for its actions.

"A public kept in the dark about critical policy decisions cannot hold its elected representatives accountable," the organization said in a statement.

In a letter to Healey, a Democrat, Pioneer asked that she issue an informal advisory opinion agreeing with its contention that the exemption written into the open meeting law was unconstitutional.

Chris Barry-Smith, first assistant attorney general under Healey, responded in a letter that the office lacked the authority to issue such an opinion. While it was empowered to offer opinions on the operation and implementation of the law, it could not conduct the constitutional analysis that the Pioneer Institute was seeking, the letter said.

The group said it disagreed and has asked Healey to reconsider.

In defending the exemption, lawmakers have said the ability to confer in private, set priorities and have frank exchanges of ideas out of public view is vital to the smooth operation of government.

The open meeting law requires that "all meetings of a public body shall be open to the public," with exceptions for meetings that may involve sensitive information about a government employee.

John Sivolella, a senior fellow in law and policy at the institute, said legislative committees often vote to close meetings or poll its members about legislation by email, which he contended could also be construed as running afoul of the open meeting law.

The institute has not decided whether to ask the state's highest court to rule on the constitutionality of the exemption, Sivolella said.


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