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In a leap forward for transparent government, the Ayer Board of Selectmen has voted unanimously (4-0, Rick Gilles absent) to release advance copies of their so-called “selectmen’s packets.”

Prepared on a Friday before a Tuesday night meeting, the packets include supporting documentation, internal memos, contracts, etc. that are to be discussed in open session at the upcoming meeting.

Advance copies will now be made available on Fridays for the public and press. (Charges may apply to obtain copies of the documents, as provided under state law.)

Do you care? We do, and our standing in this regard is the same as any other individual citizen. The decision follows a request by The Public Spirit which we believe is in keeping with the spirit of the state’s Public Record Laws, enforced by the Secretary of State.

In the foreword to Secretary of State William Galvin’s 56-page March 2009 guidelines on the matter, Galvin states, “Every government record in Massachusetts is presumed to be public unless it may be withheld under one of eighteen exemptions.” The entire set of guidelines along with many scenarios can be viewed at www.sec.state.ma.us/pre/prepdf/guide.pdf.

Selectman Jim Fay originally opposed the notion in the belief that the pre-release of such documentation to the public is not required. At Tuesday’s meeting, Fay said the release decision properly rested with the town administrator under the board’s policy manual, “if a document is deemed appropriate by the Town Administrator… He’s the document custodian.”

Town Administrator Shaun Suhoski explained that he’s already acted in the gate-keeping capacity, culling out sensitive or executive session matters before releasing the packets to the press in recent months. His opinion and cause for concern was for his board, he said.

“I’d like you to see the packet first,” he told his board. “You haven’t even had a chance to receive the packet yet. It’s a courtesy,” said Suhoski. “In a technical sense, if (a reporter) asks for a record and is given it on Tuesday, we’re compliant.”

Chairman Connie Sullivan urged the document release. He said he’s comfortable hearing from constituents, whether he’s reviewed documents or otherwise. He also feels comfortable saying “I’ll get back to you” if need be. Despite Fay’s initial reservations, he seconded the motion for the release and joined in the 4-0 vote. We applaud the collective position of the Ayer Board of Selectmen and look forward to the routine document releases.

The pre-released information will allow everyone to follow along with their elected officials. It’s a position we ask other boards and commissions, in Ayer and elsewhere, to emulate and embrace.

Suhoski has also set up a pair of November workshops for Ayer boards and commissions regarding the Open Meeting Law, Public Records Law and the Ethics Laws. At least one member of each board is being strongly encouraged to attend. And they’ll be … open to the public!

Open Meeting and Public Records Laws

Wednesday, November 4 at 7 p.m. at Great Hall, Ayer Town Hall; State Ethics Law, Wednesday, November 18 at 7 p.m. at Great Hall, Ayer Town Hall