We join the New England Newspaper & Press Association and New England First Amendment Coalition in marking “Sunshine Week” focused on open and easily-accessible public meetings.
Massachusetts’ Open Meeting laws date back to 1958 and they faced a significant test in 2020 when COVID-19 social gathering prohibitions made “Zoom “and “remote” household words and forced government meetings to retreat to computer screens.
The pandemic’s abeyance will start to open meeting rooms in city and town halls and we think this is a good time to refresh the public’s and elected officials’ and town board volunteers’ understanding of the law.
The Attorney General’s office states the Opening Meeting law’s purpose as “… promoting transparency with regard to deliberations and decisions on which public policy is based.”
The law sets requirements for posting public meeting notices. It lays out specific conditions for public bodies meeting behind closed doors in executive session, and specifies the process for holding closed-door meetings.
Coalition Executive Director Justin Silverman expanded on this goal by noting how late Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis used a metaphor to describe government transparency’s importance.
“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” Brandeis said. Open government and unfettered freedom of information, in his view, are the best ways to keep democracy free from corruption and despotism.
North Shore government bodies have faced Open Meeting law challenges during the pandemic.
Peabody City Councilor-at-Large Anne Manning-Martin filed an Open Meeting law complaint in November 2021 challenging the Peabody Zoning Board of Appeal’s compliance with the law.
“Deliberations and decisions are not to be cavalierly made out of public view as if this is now the new norm. Such relaxed standards come with the risk of abuse, which is dangerous and causes our residents not to trust us,” she stated in her complaint.
Although not the subject of an Open Meeting law complaint, the Nahant Planning Board’s vote on Dec. 21, 2021 to stop recording and posting meetings to YouTube sparked an editorial in this newspaper (Item, Jan. 11) recommending board members resign if they could not commit to exercising the highest transparency standards.
An Open Meeting law complaint filed this month alleged the Lynnfield School Committee conducted “serial deliberations” with Superintendent of Schools Kristen Vogel outside the law’s parameters.
How these complaints will be resolved remains to be seen but we point to them as examples for why now is a good time for public officials to take a refresher course in the Open Meeting law and recommit to adhering to its tenets for the public good and the good of democracy.