By Katina Caraganis
ASHBY -- The Attorney General's Office has ruled that the Board of Selectmen violated the Open Meeting Law by not posting a meeting last summer 48 hours in advance, as the law requires.
The purpose of the meeting, in part, was to discuss the school budget.
In its ruling, the Attorney General's Office ruled that emergency meetings should not be called to rectify scheduling conflicts, and they ultimately deprive the public from attending meetings.
The board planned to meet July 18, 2012, at 7 p.m. The notice for the meeting, posted July 16, 2012, listed nine topics but did not include a discussion of the newly certified budget for the North Middlesex Regional School District.
Selectmen needed to set a Special Town Meeting and special election for the budget because it required a Proposition 2 1/2 override.
The board was unable to achieve a quorum for the meeting, and it was canceled.
By then-Town Administrator Doug Briggs' calculation, the board needed to vote on and approve the Special Town Meeting and election for the budget by July 24, 2012.
Briggs told the three selectmen that a meeting would need to be held either July 23 or July 24 to address the budget issue.
Because a quorum of members could not be available, the board decided to call an emergency meeting on July 20. Notice of the meeting was posted July 19 at 3 p.m., for a meeting the following day, beginning at 9 a.m.
The Sentinel & Enterprise filed a formal complaint last summer, alleging that the meeting did not constitute an emergency because the full School Committee was meeting regularly before July 20 to discuss the budget and override.
Briggs said in a letter dated Aug. 8, 2012, that the Open Meeting Law was not violated when the emergency meeting was called. He was informed by selectmen that a quorum could not be reached until after July 27 if the emergency meeting was not called. Because of that, the override election could not have been held until at least Sept. 3, he said.
"This would mean Ashby's opportunity to vote on the budget would have expired," Briggs wrote in his response to the original complaint. "With all these variables taken into account it was deemed an emergency meeting was warranted."
The ruling, issued by Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Sclarsic, deemed the fact that the board was unable to convene a quorum between the canceled meeting of July 18 and July 24 does not constitute an emergency.
"The need to vote the NMRSD matters was not 'a sudden, generally unexpected occurrence or set or circumstances,' although the lack of a quorum on July 18, 2012, may have been unexpected," he wrote. "The board cannot rely on emergency meetings to address scheduling problems. Holding an emergency meeting deprives the public of full notice, and is reserved for only those circumstances that are unanticipated."
The Sentinel & Enterprise's filing asked that any vote taken during the emergency meeting be nullified. However, according to the ruling, because the Special Town Meeting and election have already taken place, it is impossible for the vote to be nullified.
In his ruling, Sclarsic ordered the board to comply with the Open Meeting Law in the future. He also cautioned that similar violations in the future may result in a nullification of any action taken at a meeting, and may be considered evidence of intent to violate the law.
Selectman Mike McCallum, the only current member of the board who was a selectman last summer, said Tuesday he couldn't recall the exact details surrounding the incident in question. He said he had not had a chance to review the ruling by the AG's Office.
Follow Katina Caraganis on Twitter @kcaraganis.