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AG cites Great Barrington officials for holding closed sessions on short-term rental bylaw revisions

Houses on Bridge Street in Great Barrington

The Bridge Street neighborhood in Great Barrington. The short-term rental bylaw debate stirred division last year as homeowners who rent on sites like Airbnb would take a cut to a valuable source of income. Town officials saw limiting the rentals as a way to protect the community.

GREAT BARRINGTON — The Select Board in 2022 violated the state’s open-meeting laws, the Massachusetts Attorney General Office has ruled, when two board members peeled away to privately hone the town’s proposed short-term rental bylaw before bringing it back to the entire board for a vote.

In a March 14 letter, Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Carnes Flynn said the board had essentially created a subcommittee when board Chair Stephen Bannon and Vice Chair Leigh Davis worked independently with Christopher Rembold, Assistant Town Manager and Director of Planning, to revise a draft bylaw for short-term rental rules.

Flynn said that that “subcommittee” did not follow state law requiring that prior notices be announced for such meetings and that they be open to the public.

“Although the Board did not take a formal vote and did not use the word ‘subcommittee,’ the Board discussed at length having two members work with Mr. Rembold,” Flynn added.

The violation will not result in the overturning of town’s short-term rental proposal that voters approved at the annual town meeting in June.

The attorney general’s ruling means the board will have to create minutes for the meetings of the three officials. Further, any emails sent as part of those deliberations must be read aloud at a future meeting or attached to the meetings’ minutes.

Flynn warned the board that running afoul of the rules in future would “be considered evidence of intent to violate the Law.”

Davis declined to comment, explaining that the matter is on the agenda for the board’s Monday meeting. Bannon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The finding stems from an open meeting law complaint filed in June with the Attorney General office’s Division of Open Government by two residents, Daniel Seitz and Antonio Segalla. Ten other residents had joined the complaint.

They filed it after months of heated debate in town over the short-term rental bylaw, which limited to 150 the days per year that homeowners can rent out their homes on Airbnb and other websites. The bylaw didn’t go over well with those relying on a full year of income from their home rentals.

Town officials said a bylaw was needed to protect the community from further housing scarcity and expense.

Both Seitz and Segalla were vocal opponents, and asked in the complaint that the town vote be overturned as a result of the meeting violations. Both also own homes they have advertised for short-term rentals.

‘Cutting corners’ for speed?

Board Vice Chair Davis was instrumental in driving the bylaw, and getting it to the finish line. Voters approved it, 207-111 by secret ballot on June 6.

Assistant Attorney General Flynn in her letter describes the process of what led to that vote. It involved an open discussion at a March board meeting; Davis volunteered to work with Rembold – after he proposed it – to revise the draft of the bylaw. Board member Ed Abrahams later suggested that Chair Bannon join them.

The three brought a revised version back to the board for discussion and vote on May 23 before having a hearing with public comment. Then it went to town meeting.

In her letter, Flynn wrote that while the board’s violation may have been unintentional, the state’s extensive review showed the board “clearly created a subcommittee.”

Town Counsel David Doneski had argued that because the board had not voted to create a subcommittee, there was no granting of authority to Davis. He also said the revision of the bylaw draft was not going to be a recommendation to the board but “subject to the board’s discussion and approval.”

Seitz told The Eagle he thought Flynn’s response and repercussions to the board were “appropriate.”

He said his concerns about what he called the board’s “cutting corners” were two-fold: lack of transparency and the rush to get what he called a “symbolic” but shortsighted bylaw to voters by the June meeting.

“There was not enough analysis and research on the issue of how Airbnbs are impacting the local rental market,” Seitz said. “If you’re going to pass a bylaw that will have an adverse impact on a minority of people in the town, why not take the time to research what impact is actually happening?”

He said the effect ultimately was harmful to the cohesiveness of the community.

“When one segment of the population is targeting another in a community, that’s something that adds to the ever increasing divisiveness that we are all experiencing,” Seitz said, adding that not all decisions have to satisfy everyone.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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