Without expressing an opinion on the Open Meeting Law complaint filed against the School Committee, I would like to help readers understand how OML complaints work in Marblehead.
The OML, overseen by the state Attorney General’s Office of Open Government, is meant to ensure that the public knows what its elected officials and hired staff are up to. In addition to alleging specific violations of the OML, the AG’s Office asks the complainant to propose remedies.
Once a complaint is filed, the AG’s Office must wait 30 days before reviewing it. During this cooling-off period, they ask the two parties (the complainant and the public body) to try to reach a “mutually agreeable resolution.” It’s a good system because, like a divorced couple fighting over custody of the family dog, no one wants the law involved.
In my experience, and from what I hear from my fellow complainers, town officials have not made the best use of this opportunity for dialogue. Moreover, the lack of written standard operating procedures and the failure to record and publish all meetings have made the town particularly vulnerable to OML complaints.
In fact, every single meeting held by a public body in Marblehead has been in violation for years. The OML requires that all agendas be posted 48 hours and in a place accessible to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Meeting agendas in Marblehead are posted on a bulletin board inside of Abbot Hall, which is only open during business hours. The law does allow the Select Board to vote to declare the website an official posting “location,” but they have to officially inform the AG’s Office.
Fortunately, I filed an OML complaint against the Complete Streets Committee last month (on other grounds). Town counsel’s defense, however, inadvertently informed me of this chronic problem. I immediately informed the town clerk, Robin Michaud. As always, she took quick and appropriate action: For now, notices are taped to the glass doors at Abbot Hall, and I’m told the Select Board will soon vote to approve the web. That’s what happens when we all work together.
Like Ms. Michaud, DPW Director Amy McHugh welcomes citizens petitioning government for information through OML complaints and public records (sometimes called FOIA) requests. As she told me, “The 10-day deadline for responding to a records request is a pain. But usually I say [to myself], ‘I should know that. Why don’t I know that?’”
The OML is a blunt instrument. The AG’s Office isn’t looking to punish the town, and typically OML complaints are a last resort, filed by citizens frustrated by unresponsive local officials. No doubt some allegations, though made in good faith, are unfounded.
But no one is well served by a town government doing legal battle with its citizens. Routine recording of meetings, writing out standard operating procedures, and instilling a culture of radical openness among the town’s professional staff will help reduce citizen complaints and strengthen democracy.