Keeping government good in Saugus and Nahant

Summer is supposed to be quieter, slower season compared to rest of the year, but state Attorney General Maura Healey has been busy keeping an eye on local government in Nahant and Saugus.

Healey’s office had to remind Nahant officials to re-read the state Open Meeting law after a committee established to discuss open space and recreation failed to consistently maintain meeting minutes.

Saugus got in trouble with the AG for violating a 14-day public notification requirement. The violation centered on a Feb. 2 Planning Board hearing that was publicly advertised, according to the AG’s office, on Jan. 27.

The Open Meeting law is one of those “so what” laws as in, “So what if the committee didn’t maintain minutes?” or “So what if the meeting notification requirement was violated?”

Laws are on the books because state legislators in their infinite or limited wisdom see a greater good preserved or enhanced by creating and getting the law enforced. Public boards and committees established to serve communities and the taxpayers who live in them are answerable and accountable to the public.

If a committee or board is not held responsible for creating minutes, then the time its members spend on discussing topics can’t be verified or scrutinized by the public. If public boards don’t provide adequate amount of time to inform the public about upcoming meetings, the very point of holding a meeting becomes moot.

The Feb. 2 Planning Board meeting was significant in that it attracted dozens of residents who spoke in favor and against zoning bylaw changes affecting existing local landfills and any established in the future.

Set against the backdrop of the town’s alternately beneficial and contentious relationship with Saugus Wheelabrator, the Planning Board discussion laid the groundwork for Town Meeting action on the three zoning bylaw changes.

The AG is the state’s top law enforcement agency and responsibilities include reviewing local bylaws. Although Healey sought to remedy the meeting minutes violation in Nahant by requiring the offending committee to produce the minutes, the AG took a different, more severe tact concerning the Saugus Planning Board “notice defect.”

Her office suspended its review of the three local bylaw changes and allowed complaints to be filed with the Town Clerk’s office stating that the “…notice defect was misleading or otherwise prejudicial.”

Translated into simple English, that bureaucratic-sounding sentence represents a stinging criticism of Saugus town government. Instead of briefly criticizing the Planning Board before moving on, Healey’s office may weigh the notice violation as part of its bylaw review.

There are probably more than a few people in town who think Healey’s office has more important violations to pursue than a meeting notice mistake, but most of them probably don’t want to sit down with the AG or her representative and endure a lecture about the Open Meeting law.

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