New meeting mandates irk towns

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Changes to the state's Open Meeting Law take effect today, and some local officials are concerned about its impact on their manpower and budgets, as well as possibly hindrances in conducting public meetings.

The changes to the Open Meeting Law, intended to improve the public's access to the decision-making processes of local and state government, were part of state ethics reforms signed into law in 2009.

Major changes include mandating towns create a "conspicuously visible" space with 24-hour access to meeting information; 48-hour notice of meetings -- excluding Saturdays, Sundays and holidays -- with posted agendas addressing all topics expected to be discussed; and online notice of any meeting at the state level.

Town officials say the transition has been mostly smooth, since many of the practices were already in place. But concerns remain.

Finding a viable place to post all meeting agendas has been difficult for some towns that don't currently have outdoor bulletin boards.

In Becket, Town Administrator Tony Blair said the town clerk has offered to build a covered podium for a meeting notebook. The problem, he said, is the cost in building something that could withstand the inclement winter weather and meet the new regulations.

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"It's an extremely onerous piece of legislation for us on that scale," said Blair. "They're forcing towns to pay for, yet again, another unfunded mandate."

Another change requires the inclusion of any materials used or submitted during a meeting in the minutes packets. Gregory Federspiel, town manager of Lenox, said copies of these documents are already available if people want them, but putting them in the town's bound minute books adds undue cost in manpower and production.

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"Clearer heads need to prevail in what they're looking for," said Federspiel. "All this stuff is available. To make yet another copy and attach it to the minutes doesn't make sense to us."

Richmond Town Administrator Matthew Kerwood agreed the added cost and space of including all documents is "problematic."

"The Legislature, in my opinion, should go back and look at some of these provisions and see if it's really what they want to do, to put the burden back on the cities and towns given that they already have to keep some of these records already."

Jonathan Butler, town administrator in Adams, questioned if listing all potential topics of discussion could legally prevent certain unexpected matters from being discussed.

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Butler said it seemed "counterproductive," adding, "you can't foresee everything that's going to be brought up at the meeting."

Meanwhile, enforcement of these rules on a local level now shifts from the district attorneys' offices to the Attorney General's Office.

Jill Butterworth, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, said there has been a heavy influx of calls concerning the changes, with more than 50 taken on Tuesday. Butterworth said there will be educational information available online today and the office was taking the new responsibility seriously.

"This is a new law, so we're moving forward and we're ready," she said.

Butterworth acknowledged there will be a transition period with the new law, as a public comment period will be set up and the Attorney General's Office will have the authority to make changes it feels are prudent.


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