The Martha’s Vineyard Commission does the people’s business. It is a regulatory and planning agency created to protect and enhance the Island’s “environment, economy, character, and social fabric.”
That business — all of it — should be done in public.
We were disturbed to learn that the dissenting commissioners met privately, via Zoom, to discuss whether to file a minority report stating their position on the proposed sports field complex at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Any deliberation by government board members should be done in private only as a last resort.
Ultimately, during their secret meeting, these six commissioners “unanimously” decided, in the words of MVC chair Joan Malkin — one of the dissenters — that it would be too divisive to file the report, and wouldn’t change the outcome.
“Our greatest concern was that the report might do harm to this institution that we are either appointed or elected to serve,” Malkin said at the time. “It increasingly seemed to us as we discussed it further and further that it would turn out to be divisive and polarizing, rather than inclusive.”
We’re not sure an issue could be any more divisive and polarizing than the fields project. The Island is split on the project, specifically the inclusion of a synthetic turf field.
By releasing the report to The Times, it clearly explained the reasons that six commissioners felt strongly that the project should not go forward — important context for the community.
We pushed for the release of the document because it was discussed during a public meeting. The report concluded that the “project detriments clearly outweigh its benefits.”
Under the Massachusetts Public Records Law, any document, including a draft document, is considered public record. The law does provide some exemptions to withhold documents, but those are typically to protect privacy.
In releasing the document, the MVC made it seem like they were doing us a favor. “[The report] was generated after the final decision of the commission, and reflects only draft discussion points of the minority of commissioners who voted to deny the project. We note that the dissenting commissioners unanimously determined to NOT file the requested document with the commission,” Malkin wrote. “However, the commission believes that producing the document now would further transparency and trust in the MVC, and would enable the commission to concentrate its efforts on other pressing matters before it.”
That should always be the commission’s intent, and commissioners should come to that conclusion on their own — not be forced into it by the press.
As clear as the public records law is that all documents produced by government agencies are presumed public, the Open Meeting Law is just as clear that government bodies should be doing the public’s business in a public setting, at a place and time that’s been posted 48 hours in advance. There are exemptions to this as well, having to do with negotiations, security, and litigation, to name a few of them.
Malkin has said she doesn’t believe the dissenters violated the Open Meeting Law because the six members did not constitute a quorum of the commission. However, we would argue that the dissenting commissioners make up an unofficial subcommittee, based on their shared position on the sports complex. And all subcommittees are held to the same standards as standing committees when it comes to the Open Meeting Law.
Beyond that, Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office oversees the Open Meeting Law, strongly cautions “about meeting when a quorum is not present. The Open Meeting Law prohibits serial communication between or among members of a public body that reach a quorum of members outside of a noticed meeting. Thus, when a sub-quorum discusses a topic, which is then shared with a quorum outside of a meeting, it may be considered improper deliberation.”
We hope commissioners will remember moving forward they are doing the public’s business and strive for full transparency. And when it matters, they should use their ability to provide context through a minority report.