Oak Bluffs secrecy is the subject of MVTimes scrutiny this morning, but the issue is common to all of the public agencies that do the people’s business, in the six towns and at the regional and county levels. There is judgment required of elected and appointed public servants, when they decide how to deliberate policy matters, but the guidelines are clear.
Consider the Massachusetts attorney general’s expression of the simple purpose of the law governing policy making by public officials: “The purpose of the Open Meeting Law is to ensure transparency in the deliberations on which public policy is based. Because the democratic process depends on the public having knowledge about the considerations underlying governmental action, the Open Meeting Law requires, with some exceptions, that meetings of public bodies be open to the public. It also seeks to balance the public’s interest in witnessing the deliberations of public officials with the government’s need to manage its operations efficiently.”
In most cases, if public officials make a decision, they must do so in public. There are exceptions. For instance, selectmen, meeting with their labor counsel, may decide to make this offer or that one, in upcoming negotiations with an employee bargaining unit. Or, they may discuss security strategies and security personnel deployment. They can deliberate privately about a property purchase or sale. They can consider in private what to do with an employee who, they believe, has misbehaved.
But these are tactical equations that must be solved, not public policy decisions in which the public must have a part. And, in each case a careful record of such executive meetings must be made contemporaneously, including a record of any votes taken, and the record must be maintained and released as soon as the issue that occasioned the private session has been resolved. This isn’t rocket science.
Times writer Steve Myrick reports today that ” Over a three-year period from 2009 through 2011, as Oak Bluffs struggled through a period of budget turmoil and personnel upheaval, the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen cited an exception to the open meeting law to go into executive session 17 times, deliberating in secret on a range of town issues. Until recently, the board kept nearly all of the records of those meetings under lock and key, though the law requires selectmen to review them at reasonable intervals and make the minutes of the meetings public, once the exception to the open meeting law no longer applies.”
The secrecy makes it difficult for taxpayers to find out how selectmen voted on sensitive issues, what decisions were made to spend taxpayer’s money, and whether the exception cited to go into executive session was lawful.
Mr. Myrick reports that the town has significantly reformed it executive session practice, as it should have. This page finds that the improved quality of town elected and appointed leadership has led to a clearer recognition of the need for public policy questions to be debated and decided in public.
For every other town and every other regional jurisdiction, it is always a matter of the quality of leadership that determines whether the public’s right to understand and participate in the conduct of public affairs is respected and advanced by the leaders chosen to serve.