Conservation commission violated meeting law

State rules Edgartown commission did so unintentionally during discussions of Katama Farm lease.

The state says the Edgartown conservation commission violated the Open Meeting Law by discussing Katama Farm's lease in executive session.

The state attorney general’s office made a ruling Thursday that the Edgartown conservation commission violated open meeting law last year by meeting in executive session to discuss terminating The Trustees of Reservations’ long-term lease at Katama Farm. 

In a letter to Edgartown town counsel Ron Rappaport, assistant attorney general Elizabeth Carnes Flynn wrote that the commission improperly met in executive session four separate times, on July 22, July 27, August 5, and August 13 of 2020, and discussed terminating The Trustees’ Katama Farm lease, the commission’s desired use of the farm, The Trustees’ use of the farm, the commission’s concerns, and the commission’s belief that The Trustees were in violation of the lease and land use plan.

The commission acts as landlord of the town-owned farm. In 2016, The Trustees took over the farm and the nonprofit FARM Institute. The state’s review was in response to a complaint from Edgartown resident and former FARM Institute board president Jonathan Chatinover that deliberations concerning The Trustees’ lease were improperly done behind closed doors.

The commission terminated its lease with The Trustees in August, after commissioners raised concerns with Sam Hart, who is director of the Trustees’ Vineyard and Nantucket properties, about the use of the farm. 

The FARM institute is no longer operating at Katama Farm, according to conservation agent Jane Varkonda. The nonprofit organization is conducting programming.

Commissioners felt there was too big a focus on farm events and the teaching kitchen at the FARM Institute, and too little focus on agricultural production. Since then the commission created a Katama Farm stewardship committee to put together requests for proposals (RFP).

Flynn wrote that the state’s review of executive session minutes and video recordings found that the commission cited possible litigation and pending real estate negotiations as their reasons for entering the executive sessions, but their actual discussions did not meet the executive session threshold.

“Instead, the commission discussed the pros and cons of terminating The Trustees’ lease of Katama Farm, a lease signed years prior and for which all terms had been settled and agreed upon,” Flynn wrote in part. “The commission did not discuss an intent to negotiate the lease, nor was there any indication that holding the discussion in open session would have been detrimental to any negotiating position the commission might have had with respect to the lease.”

Despite the violations, Flynn wrote the state did not find the commission’s open meeting law violation to be intentional, and that Rappaport even contacted the attorney general’s office to obtain information regarding the use of executive session in an effort to comply with the law.

“Although ultimately we find that the specific matters discussed were not appropriate for executive session, we find that the commission sincerely but mistakenly believed that it had proper reason to meet in executive session,” Flynn wrote. “Therefore we do not find that the commission intentionally violated open meeting law.”

Flynn did warn the commission that future violations may be considered evidence of an intent to violate the law.

The commission must also approve the four sets of executive session minutes, and release them to the public within 30 days. “The commission may not redact or withhold the minutes in any way,” Flynn wrote.

On Thursday, the stewardship committee opened RFPs from Sean Bern of Island Grown Farms, Morning Glory Farm, Grey Barn, The Trustees, and Darcie Lee Hanaway. Proposals were not discussed, and Varkonda told The Times the proposals would not be released until they are rated.