AYER -- Most at Thursday's Open Meeting Law workshop at Town Hall were town officials. Assistant Attorney General Amy Nable, director of the Division of Open Government, said the law's purpose is to "strike a balance between government efficiency and government transparency."
The law applies to oral or written discussion ("deliberations") among members of public bodies, such as selectmen, members of the Finance Committee, Planning Board, etc. Deliberation can be face to face, or via telephonic or electronic means such as through email, telephone, or Facebook.
Meetings are to be conducted in public unless one of 10 exemptions to the law applies, providing for closed-door or executive-session deliberations among board members.
In this age of electronic communications, Nable warned the crowd to be leery of inadvertently deliberating in contravention of the law.
"It gets very sticky very quickly," said Nable. To avoid the "temptation" to deliberate, Nable suggested only blind-copying (bcc) other members of a board you're serving on.
Nable said meetings must be publically posted at least 48 hours in advance, not including Saturday, Sunday or legal holidays. Meeting notices must include the meeting date, time and place of meeting. The notices are agendas, listing subjects "reasonably anticipated" to be discussed at the meeting.
The Assistant Attorney Generals warned that they would not hash through real scenarios or answer questions about actual events, noting some may be investigated by their office.
Audience members were invited to write their questions on index cards. Generalized answers were provided by Nable and Assistant Attorney General Hanne Rush.
One person asked what would happen if a public body hangs out socially. Rush said it's "perfectly fine" that members talk to one another as long as there is no discussion of the items within a board's jurisdiction.
Another asked if the doors to the meeting place must remain open. Yes, said Nable.
"Members of the public need to gain access for the duration of the meeting," Nable said.
Editing documents outside of posted meetings in a serial fashion is discouraged. Though in private industry there are electronic tools to collaborate on documents and presentations, they're currently frowned upon on the municipal front.
If there are questions about the law, Nable encouraged attendees to call to the Attorney General's Office at (617) 963-2540. "We prefer you call us before you get into trouble." The website for more information and a searchable index of past determinations is at:www.mass.gov/ago/openmeeting.
Most complaints can be addressed with a request. Sometimes mandated training is in order, or the AG's office can nullify board action taken during a meeting that violates the law, including reinstatement of employees. There are also fines of up to $1,000 for an official who violates the law.
Nable said most violations are not due to mal-intent, but rather the "lack of information or a misunderstanding."
"That's why we're doing these trainings. Our goal is compliance with the law."
Follow Mary Arata ontwitter.com/maryearata.