More complaints with new Open Meeting Law

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Going by the numbers, it's been an ugly 12 months for open government in Berkshire County.

A revamped state Open Meeting Law went into effect one year ago, and since then, governing bodies in the county have been subject to more complaints than ever: 12, compared to only four filed during the prior 12 months.

One of those complaints, lodged against the Otis Board of Selectmen, resulted in an investigation by the attorney general, who recommended the board be fined $1,000 for intentionally violating the law by holding a secret meeting of the town's selectmen at the Otis Poultry Farm. Otis is one of only two towns in the state found by Attorney General Martha Coakley to have intentionally violated the new law.

Coakley has forwarded the Otis matter to a hearing before an administrative law judge.

The open meeting law requires local government to be practiced in public, limiting secret meetings to special circumstances and forcing boards and bodies to notify the public of planned meetings by posting schedules and agendas in advance.

Prior to the new law, complaints were filed with the district attorney's office, which would investigate and, if it determined there was a malicious intent behind a violation, bring the complaint to a hearing before a local judge.

In the past quarter century of enforcement, the district attorney's office never found that a board had intentionally violated the law, according to the office.

"I think the attorney general is continuing what we've always done, which is focus on illegal intent: You can tell when people are working honestly and without a hidden agenda," said Assistant District Attorney Joseph Pieropan, who handled the department's enforcement until the attorney general's office took over.

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Pieropan said that in a typical year, his office would receive an average of six to nine complaints.

"A very distinct minority of the complaints were meritorious," said Pieropan.

Pieropan said most of the violations were resolved by explaining the law, and in a worst-case scenario, asking a board to retake a vote in public.

The complaints ran the gamut, from concerns that meetings weren't being publicly posted to allegations that minutes weren't being taken.

Complaints filed since the attorney general took over open meeting enforcement range from concerns about incomplete and inaccurate minutes from a Becket Board of Selectmen's meeting to allegations that the town moderator in Egremont improperly squelched discussion during the annual Town Meeting.

In addition to giving the attorney general power to enforce open meeting standards, the new law also requires cities and towns to make meeting postings available 24 hours a day and introduced new record-keeping requirements.

Despite initial trepidation, the county's clerks said they've adapted to the new rules.

"It was a bit of a transition," said Pittsfield City Clerk Linda Tyer. "We educated all the clerks and boards and commissions on the new requirements. It took time, but we've adjusted."


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