, Newburyport, MA

Local News

November 1, 2012

State finds selectmen violated open meeting law

Internal finance report should have been discussed in public, ruling says

WEST NEWBURY — The Board of Selectmen has been found by the state attorney general’s office to have improperly met behind closed doors last year to discuss an internal control report on the Finance Department.

The selectmen’s executive session meeting on Oct. 5, 2011, violated the state open meeting law, according to the ruling. But because the financial review had already been released to the public last November, the attorney general’s office offered its ruling for “future guidance” only, Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Sclarsic wrote in a letter dated Oct. 23 to Town Counsel Michael McCarron.

The finding is in response to a complaint filed last December by former selectman Tom Atwood.

On Oct. 5, 2011, selectmen met to discuss a draft version of a report created by the accounting firm Melanson Heath & Company that “examined potential municipal payroll discrepancies, personnel reimbursements and vendor contracts and recommended changes.”

At question was whether it was appropriate for a public body wishing to discuss a draft version of a report to do so in private session by citing an exemption of public records law governing “inter-agency memoranda or letters relating to policy positions being developed by the agency.”

Selectmen had argued that because the document was being used to “formulate internal controls to prevent repetition” of errors previously made in the Finance Department, discussion in executive session was permissible.

But the attorney general’s office ruled that “the board should have discussed the Melanson report in open session, even in its draft form” because “a public body cannot prospectively use the exemption to discuss a policy decision that — but for the existence of a document that could be protected — they could not discuss in executive session.”

Sclarsic added, “To allow such a reading of the law would permit public bodies to discuss any policy decision behind closed doors as long as they are developing a written document alongside their deliberations.”

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