Local Government and Politics, News

A reporter sees an open meeting law violation in Saugus. Officials see a ‘vendetta.’

Saugus School Committee members Jennie Meredith and Elizabeth Marchese.
Saugus School Committee members Jennie Meredith and Elizabeth Marchese. (Owen O'Rourke/File photo)

SAUGUS — A month after Attorney General Maura Healey ruled the School Committee was in violation of the open meeting law, members are saying a new complaint filed against the panel is part of a personal vendetta.

Mark Vogler, a reporter for the Saugus Advocate, filed a complaint earlier this month alleging the committee failed to start a meeting in open session before moving into a closed-door executive session on Jan. 30.

Committee members are questioning his intent.

“I think he’s carrying out a personal vendetta,” said Jeannie Meredith, chairwoman of the committee. “That’s it.”

“I feel he has deliberately sided with disgruntled former school committee members to deliberately derail the present school committee from continuing to make effective progress in moving the system forward,” said committee member Linda Gaieski. “He has deliberately written extensive articles furthering their points of view and has even printed untruths about Mrs. (Liz) Marchese’s legitimate quest for an athletic director position, and my violating the open meeting law during a hiatus in a contentious meeting in which School Committee members told him I was a third School Committee member meeting in the superintendent’s office when I was in the ladies room and have witnesses to verify my whereabouts.”

In the complaint filed with Healey’s office, Vogler said the meeting was supposed to convene in the Saugus School Committee room. All five members of the committee “emerged from a back hall that leads directly to the superintendent’s office” at 4:53 p.m.

“It was then apparent to me that the first part of the agenda, including the executive session, took place in some other part of the building, presumably in the superintendent’s private office,” Vogler said in the report. “There were no signs posted upon entry to the School Committee Room indicating the meeting had been moved nor was the agenda amended to indicate such.”

Vogler said he and other members of the public were denied the opportunity to be physically present at the start of the meeting to hear what was discussed during the initial open session portion.

He filed a second complaint, saying the agenda lacked specificity for the public to understand which unit contract negotiations would be discussed.

“The committee did not indicate what was resolved in the executive session nor what votes, if any, were taken,” he said. “With the lack of specificity and vague language in wording the agenda, I question whether this was no more than a budget discussion behind closed doors as the school committee has no involvement in non-union contract negotiations.”

The open session in the School Committee lasted just over two minutes, said Vogler.

Gaieski said she left her belongings in the School Committee room and returned to retrieve them at 3:28 p.m. She saw Volger in the meeting room, and she said he “had the opportunity to ask where the meeting was being held but did not do so.”

According to Section 21 of the open meeting law, executive session meetings must convene in open session. The majority of the board has to vote to go into executive session and the vote must be taken by roll call. The chair must state the purpose and whether they will reconvene in open session. Accurate records must be maintained.

Notice of an open meeting is required to be posted at least 48 hours prior to the start of the meeting in a legible, easy to understand format, and must contain the site, time, and place of such meeting and a listing of topics.

In a phone interview Friday night, Vogler said the complaint was not personal and not fueled by anyone else. He said he regrets not filing complaints in the past when he should have.

“If that meeting opened in the superintendent’s office, that was an improper meeting,” he said. “The citizens were denied the right to question the executive session.”

Vogler said he has paid close attention to the open meeting law in every community he has covered, and has challenged municipal boards in the past. He called the idea that a former board member is behind his complaint “baloney.”

“It’s nothing personal,” said Vogler. “It’s about the process and the process stinks in Saugus. Instead of a civic duty, they treat it like a club sport.”

Meredith said she found it odd that she learned about the complaint in the Saugus Advocate days before she received the formal complaint.

Meredith said that every time an executive session is held, the agenda indicates that there will be an open session, followed by an executive session, and whether or not the committee will reconvene publicly.

“Everybody knows that we go into the superintendent’s office,” she said. “We open all the doors, open the open meeting, state the reason why we’re going into executive session, and then close the doors. Historically, that is always how executive session has gone in this town.”

“I have been serving on this committee for five years now and have followed the same procedures as former school committees,” said Meredith. “Mr. Vogler has been reporting in Saugus for several years and is well aware of the executive session format with the committee holding their executive sessions in the superintendent’s office. I am curious as to why at this point in time, he has suddenly taken issue with this format.”

She said she believes the complaint was filed to piggyback on a recent ruling by the attorney general that found the committee in violation and required that they strictly follow the law moving forward.

Healey previously ruled the minutes for executive session lacked sufficient detail, including the notes for a March 16, 2017 discussion that sent former member Peter Manoogian in an uproar.

“The minutes list the topics that were discussed — teaching time, insurance, etc., — but they do not provide a substantive summary of the committee’s conversations on these topics,” said Assistant Attorney General Kevin Manganaro in a letter to the town. “We order the committee’s immediate and future compliance with the open meeting law, and we caution that similar future violations may be considered evidence of intent to violate the law.”

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