AYER — It’s open season on the Open Meeting Law.
Cities and towns in the state are wrangling with how to comply with the change in the transparency requirements. In Ayer last week, the selectmen pondered how to proceed with the well publicized set of law changes that took effect July 1.
Interim Town Administrator Jeff Ritter briefed the selectmen on the changes that will affect them and all public boards and commissions and their subcommittees.
* E-mail or chain deliberation out of the public’s eye may result in $1,000 fines issued per person (not per board or fined to the town itself) as an incentive to keep officials’ talks transparent and open to view.
* Agendas, like meeting notices, must be posted 48 hours in advance of a meeting’s start time, not including Saturdays, Sundays or holidays. The change here is that Saturday cannot count towards the 48-hour count.
* Agendas must contain a specific listing of all topics “reasonably” expected to be discussed at the meeting, so as to inform the public in advance of issues to be covered.
* Before entering into executive or closed-door session, the board must state the specific reason under the law that permits the closed-door session and a brief discussion of the subject matter (for example, a meeting must not only state “real estate negotiations,” which the law permits in private but specifically regarding what parcel of land, like “Central Avenue land parcels” as has been contemplated recently for a town-owned parking lot.)
* After meetings, the “minutes” or recount of the meeting’s subject matter must include all votes and matters discussed, as well as the time, date and place of the meeting and include as an appendage all documents used during that meeting’s deliberations.
Ritter reminded the board that there needs to be prompt release of executive or closed door session minutes once the subject matter that permitted the private discussion has been brought to conclusion.
Who’s responsible to post meeting notices and
It had been Town Hall practice for board representatives to file their notices with the town clerk’s office, which continues to be required to serve as the gatekeeper as far as date and time for filings. Copies of notices are stored and logged in at the clerk’s office. However, Ritter said the physical posting on a notice board will be up to the individual boards, according to Clerk John Canney’s interpretation of the law.
But where to post?
The new law changes require 24-hour access to meeting notices, now affixed to the seven-foot by four-foot cork board on the interior hallway wall outside Canney’s office. The law permits alternative posting locations if Town Hall can’t host an external all-access board.
Ritter said the town’s exploring the notion of posting meetings in a flip book available around the clock at the Ayer Police Department on Park Street, a manned location, “in case someone wants to walk in at 3 a.m.”
In addition, Ritter said the town’s website, cable access channel and phone system may be employed to provide added electronic means of notice.
“This is going to require a very significant education for all the committees out there,” Ritter said.
The law’s in effect now, and so, in an effort to comply, some boards have taken to posting their meeting notices and agendas inside the glass panes, facing outwards on the doors at Town Hall.
Ritter said a catalogue listing for a prefabricated exterior posting board would cost $3,000, which he said is too expensive, in his opinion.
Michael Pattenden said the law’s been coming for some time; the notion of using the door postings is both a hazard and difficult to decipher.
Pattenden chastised the notion that $3,000 for a board is too much money to spend. “I think this is personally one of the most important things in the law. If the board says that it’s not going to do it, I’ll make one and put it up there … Where do you want it put outside? I don’t see any real alternative. It’s the law now.”
“Three thousand dollars out of a $22 million budget?” Pattenden said. “Sorry folks, this is too important.”
Selectman Jim Fay said he is concerned that an external posting board is not up already. “It should have been done the first of July. I’m disappointed, frankly, that we didn’t get Job Corps to build one. They’ll do it for the cost of materials. (If) we’re getting a $1,000 fine that can come in from many committees, that $3,000 is going to evaporate quickly in fines. This should have been done yesterday.”
“Before you raise your blood pressure any more, I think there was language there to try to push this off to November,” said Board of Health Chairman Mary Spinner from the audience. She labeled the law change another “unfunded mandate” from the state.
“I think it’s kind of funny that they put this whole thing on,” Spinner said. “They’re famous for posting at 4 p.m. for a 9 a.m. meeting” the next day.
Another possibility mentioned is a computer monitor at a Town Hall window, aimed outward for passersby to see.
“I think that’s kind of tacky myself,” said Ritter.
He also said the sheer number of meeting notices would provide video viewers quite a wait time to wait for a notice to cycle by. “That board is quite large.”
As to the warehousing requirement for public records that are generated by board meetings, Selectman Frank Maxant appealed that documents be copied on both sides of paper to cut down on the space the storage will consume.