NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Local News

March 23, 2013

AG: Town broke public records law

Private emails violated rules regarding public deliberation

WEST NEWBURY — The Community Preservation Committee got a lesson this week from the state Attorney General’s office on just exactly what it means to legally deliberate.

The seven-member CPC, tasked with overseeing the town’s Community Preservation Act funds, was cited for violating the state’s Open Meeting Law because of 5 emails distributed among its members back in April and May of last year. Tom Atwood, who previously served on the committee, filed the complaint on June 26, 2012.

In a letter issued this month, Assistant Attorney General Hanne Rush states although the committee “as a whole” violated the law, it “was not intentional, but rather the result of a misunderstanding of the law’s requirements.” Rush explained that while a public body may distribute documents via email, the person sending them out must not include an opinion along with it.

“Expression of an opinion on matters within the body’s jurisdiction to a quorum of a public body is a deliberation, even if no other public body responds,” the letter states.

CPC Chairman Judy Mizner said this week that her committee will comply with all requirements set forth in Rush’s letter and will discuss it at its April meeting. The state is requiring “immediate and future” compliance with the law; written certification within 30 days that all members have viewed an OML video training; and public disclosure of the improper emails at the committee’s next meeting.

But Mizner, who wasn’t on the committee at the time of the complaint, also underscored that the violations were unintentional. Rather than a premeditated effort to exclude the public, Mizner sees it as the board’s “lack of clarity” over what it legally means to deliberate. “Most people think of deliberations as discussions that lead to a decision,” she said.

But the law defines deliberation as “an oral or written communication through any medium, including electronic email, between or among a quorum of a public body on any public business within its jurisdiction.” The distribution of meeting agenda, scheduling information or other items for discussion at a future meeting are exempt as long as no members’ opinions are expressed when the documents are sent.

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