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Limited release of closed-door School Committee meetings

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HARVARD — At Tuesday night’s Harvard School Committee meeting, Chairman Keith Cheveralls acknowledged receipt of public records requests, and now a complaint. Both relate to the release of minutes, or lack thereof, from closed door committee meetings in the aftermath of the Ethics Commission Decision and Order against Harvard School Superintendent Thomas Jefferson.

The committee met in executive session on May 10, May 28, June 29, July 19 and Aug. 30 regarding the Ethics Commission’s April ruling against Jefferson, according to an earlier committee press release.

In an update for the “public and the press,” Cheveralls said that “under advice of counsel, we are withholding those minutes.” However, Cheveralls said attorneys for the school and Jefferson have agreed to release minutes for just one of the five meetings — May 10.

According to the May 10 executive-session minutes, the committee unanimously approved (5-0) the hiring of the Boston law firm Brody Hardoon Perkins and Kesten to serve as independent counsel for the committee. The purpose was to aid “in determining the appropriate response to the finding of the State Ethics Commission.”

In a Sept. 13 “Statement,” the School Committee announced that at its Aug. 30 meeting “the Committee voted to take appropriate action in order to conclude this painful chapter in the Town’s history.” However, the committee failed to detail what that “appropriate action” was. The statement partially explained. “The laws of the Commonwealth prevent the Committee from making public the action taken.”

The statement concludes, “With this statement, the Committee considers this matter closed.”

There has been no public statement of what action was taken or when it would be revealed.

The Open Meeting Law permits the demand for the production of open-session minutes, even if in handwritten or draft form, within ten days of request. For closed door meetings, the attorney general’s office suggests that public boards have a policy in place on the timely release of executive session minutes.

Closed-door meeting minutes are to be released when the “lawful purpose of the executive session” lapses “but no longer.” When that time comes, minutes, preparatory materials and documents and exhibits of the session must be disclosed unless they’re protected by attorney-client privilege or other enumerated exemptions.

The chairman or designee is to review executive session minutes “at reasonable intervals” to determine the validity of withholding minutes from disclosure. Determinations are to be announced at the body’s next meeting. Otherwise, records are to be released within 10 days of request.

The board is permitted to review the minutes to release only the portions that are ripe for release. A board is to act on the request at its next meeting or within 30 days, whichever occurs first.

The Harvard Hillside requested the executive session minutes on Sept. 13. Cheveralls rejected the request on Sept. 14.

The Harvard Hillside filed a complaint with both Cheveralls and Town Clerk Janet Vellante on Monday, Oct. 11 seeking resolution of the matter at the local level, as is now required under the Open Meeting Law. The Harvard Hillside simultaneously filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s Superintendent of Records for the release of the closed door meeting minutes.

In addition to the May 10 meeting minutes, Cheveralls stated that the attorneys had agreed to release the closed door meeting minutes of July 12. The July 12 minutes state there was unanimous agreement (5-0) to approve some of the prior closed door minutes but hold on their release with this statement, “Minutes to be made public at the conclusion of all proceedings and decisions relating to the ethics violations.”

While the Ethics Commission ruled against Jefferson in April, Jefferson has appealed the decision and Order to Suffolk Superior Court.

Jefferson was found civilly responsible for violating the state’s Conflict of Interest Laws when he approved $30,000 in payments in the form of two $15,000 checks made payable directly to former Harvard School Committee Chairman Paul Wormser. The payment was to reimburse Wormser for the placement of Wormser’s daughter in a nonstate approved private high school in circumvention of normal special education outplacement procedures.

Jefferson has maintained that student privacy laws prevented his revealing publically the student’s outplacement needs without, by default, identifying the special-education student. The Ethics Commission had argued a quid pro quo arrangement arose between Wormser and Jefferson, as Jefferson served under contract to the School Committee Wormser served upon.

In its September statement, the current Harvard School Committee wished Jefferson “luck” with his appeal efforts. While the committee stated “we have concluded that both Dr. Jefferson and Mr. Wormser did not act appropriately,” the statement took issue with the quid-pro- quo charge.

“In an attempt at balanced perspective afforded more by hindsight, we acknowledge that the Superintendent’s actions were not motivated by personal gain and that the former Chair, Mr. Wormser, is at least equally, if not more, accountable for these improprieties.”

The Ethics Commission found that both men broke the Conflict of Interest laws and assessed civil fines equally, $4,000 to each of them.

Regarding the release of the meeting minutes, Cheveralls said, “Simply stated, the School Committee is and always has been prepared to release” the documents but is “acting on advice of outside counsel” to “minimize the possibility of litigation.”

“The holdup is due to differences of legal opinion and the absent of clear cut case law,” said Cheveralls. “We therefore feel, on the advice of counsel, that the best course of action is to let the attorney general’s office decide whether or not they should be released. We anticipate that they”ll do so quickly in light of the requests and follow up to complaints that have subsequently been filed with the attorney general’s office. We’ll obviously keep everyone advised. We thank the members of the press and public for their continued understanding as we continue to work through this.”

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