Submitted by Ann Kiessling, PhD
Open Meeting Law, (MGL 38, chapters 18-25) states simply “…all meetings of a public body shall be open to the public.” And that “… a public body shall post notice of every meeting at least 48 hours prior to such meeting…”
The goal is to ensure that citizens know all the actions of their government in order to maintain a balance of power between individual citizens and their governing bodies.
In Bedford, taxes are collected to pay town employees to carry out the will of the people, but town governance is by volunteers — elected and appointed citizens that serve without pay on public decision-making bodies.
Open Meeting Law violations are handled by clearly defined procedures in Massachusetts, copies of which are given to every public servant upon taking office:
(1) All complaints shall be in writing, using the form approved by the Attorney General and available on the Attorney General’s website… A public body need not address a complaint that is not filed using the Attorney General’s complaint form.”
(2) Public bodies… should provide any person, on request, with an Open Meeting Law Complaint Form…
(3) … the complainant shall file the complaint with the chair of the public body, who shall disseminate copies of the complaint to the members of the public body….and the municipal clerk, who shall keep such filings in an orderly fashion for public review…
(4) The complaint shall be filed within 30 days of the alleged violation…
(5) Within 14 business days after receiving the complaint…the public body shall review the complaint’s allegations…and send to the complainant a response and a description of any remedial action taken. The public body shall simultaneously notify the Attorney General that it has sent such materials to the complainant and shall provide the Attorney General with a copy of the complaint, the response, and a description of any remedial action taken.”
These clear guidelines suggest Open Meeting Law challenges are commonplace, as evidenced by a review of the lengthy “settled” and “pending” complaints listed on the Open Meeting Law website.
Neither these guidelines nor Bedford’s Civil Discourse Policy were followed by Town Manager Sarah Stanton and Select Board Michael Rosenberg with respect to a Conservation Commission meeting that occurred on 2 August 2019. Ten days after the meeting, Stanton and Rosenberg issued an inflammatory email to the Chairman of Bedford’s Conservation Commission that accused four Commissioners of committing an Open Meeting Law Violation on 2 Aug, as well as “in the past.”
The four Commissioners had complied with a “special meeting” request by Conservation Commission Administrator, Elizabeth Bagdonas, on 2 Aug to sign an Order of Conditions approved in April for a Bedford family seeking to install a dog fence in their yard. Meeting urgency stemmed from the 3-month tardiness in preparing the Order of Conditions for signatures. Four Commissioners arranged their schedules for a brief Friday afternoon window on the steps of Town Hall.
The meeting was logged in by Town Clerk and posted per usual procedure, at 9 am on 30 July, 57 hours before the scheduled meeting.
Although Town Manager Stanton may have tampered with the meeting posting, this did not come to the attention of all the Conservation Commission members involved, who met at the prescribed time on 2 Aug and voted in favor of the list of conditions for the dog fence.
Upon receipt of the 12 Aug accusatory email, the four Commissioners requested to meet with Stanton and Rosenberg to discuss the confusion. A meeting was refused! In stark contrast to the Selectmen’s Civil Discourse Policy “To respectfully listen to differing points of view,” town employee Stanton and Select Board member Rosenberg refused to meet with the four Commissioners, fellow Bedford citizens, whom they had accused of wrong-doing.
Because of the meeting denial, one of the Commissioners sought clarification from the law firm McGregor and Legere which has significant expertise in Open Meeting and Environmental Law. Upon review of the circumstances and all the email exchanges, their legal opinion was that not only had the Commissioners not violated Open Meeting Law on 2 Aug, the email action by Stanton and Rosenberg did violate Open Meeting Law by not adhering to complaint guidelines. The McGregor and Legere letter to Stanton outlined several process violations, including her lack of authority to cancel duly posted meetings scheduled by town bodies.
In addition to the violation of Open Meeting Law guidelines, and their own Civil Discourse Policy by refusing to meet with the Commissioners, and then also refusing to allow the alternative opinion of McGregor and Legere to be aired at a 7 Oct Select Board meeting, the Select Board failed to acknowledge the fact that Bedford Town Counsel himself actually upheld the legality of holding a public meeting outside of Town Hall. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nveGFHL5Gcg). Hence, the Stanton/Rosenberg email statement “As you know, Town policy is not to hold meetings or public hearings on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, as the Town Hall is not open to the public at that time” is factually inaccurate and not in keeping with Open Meeting Law.
The lack of respect for due process by the Bedford Select Board at the meeting on 7 Oct. prompted two Commissioners to immediately resign from town service.
Successful government of the people, by the people, and for the people is dependent upon an overarching faith in the honest interactions between persons and public bodies. When mistakes are made, there is a democratic process expectation that those mistakes will be acknowledged and appropriate steps taken to correct them. The Stanton/Rosenberg August email attack on the Conservation Commission is such a mistake, both in tone, in facts cited, and in due process. These mistakes need to be acknowledged to protect a relationship of trust between town employees, elected Select Board Members, and the numerous citizen volunteers who donate their time to carry out necessary town functions.