, Newburyport, MA


April 5, 2012

Open Meeting Law changes get short shrift

One wonders how long Bay State voters will tolerate the imperiousness of a Legislature that imposes transparency on others but refuses to make itself subject to the Open Meeting Law.

In a memo to his members last week, the executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, Robert Ambrogi, reported, "Bills that we supported that would have put sharper teeth in the Open Meeting Law and that would have extended the law to the Legislature have been effectively mothballed for this legislative session." One of those bills (S. 1625) was sponsored by state Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who represents local towns such as Newbury, West Newbury and Rowley.

The Open Meeting Law is meant to guarantee the public access to the deliberations of those they elect to represent them. It should be a basic tenet of American democracy.

But the legislation now on the books in Massachusetts falls short on two important counts: 1.) There is no penalty for those city and town officials who choose to wilfully ignore it; and 2.) The Legislature and its committees are exempted from its provisions.

A bill filed by Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford, would have addressed the former problem by allowing the attorney general to reprimand and the courts to impose civil fines, on those officials found to have intentionally violated the law.

Such provisions are not aimed at unpaid board or commission members who are a day late posting notice of a meeting or otherwise violate the law by mistake. Yet the plight of these innocents is often cited by opponents of a stronger Open Meeting Law as a reason for doing nothing.

The fact is the real intent of reformers like Cabral is to crack down on those veteran public officials who are well aware of the law's provisions, but consistently choose to ignore it, knowing there is no penalty for doing so.

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