Plays shell game with weak open-meeting law
On July 1, a new, supposedly improved Massachusetts open-meeting law went into effect. Passed by legislators and signed by Governor Deval Patrick a little more than a year ago, the law strikes several blows in favor of open government. Trouble is, the changes do more harm than good.
The most glaring shortcoming of the old law — the lack of any meaningful enforcement — has not only not been corrected, but it's actually been made worse. According to Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association (MNPA) executive director Robert Ambrogi, a lawyer who writes the blog Media Law, a public body can no longer be found to have broken the open-meeting law unless there's a ruling that its behavior was "intentional" — "an almost impossible hurdle to overcome," he writes. Thus the MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE earns a Muzzle for moving backward on conducting the public's business in public.
The new law isn't all bad. For one thing, it centralizes enforcement in the state attorney general's office rather than leaving it to district attorneys, whose ardor for going after secrecy-loving school committees, city councils, and boards of selectmen varied from county to county. For another, it includes tightened language, an annual reporting requirement, and the creation of an advisory board whose members will include a representative of the MNPA.
But even aside from the new requirement that intent be proved, the provisions are unconscionably weak. The law, then and now, calls for a maximum fine of $1000 to be paid not by the individual officials who broke it, but by the governmental body itself — in other words, by the taxpayers. There is also no provision for people who bring complaints to collect attorneys' fees. In 38 other states, Ambrogi says, officials must pay out of their own pockets. And in 21 states, breaking the open-meeting law is a criminal rather than a civil matter.
"As the state's open-meeting law now stands, it is one of the weakest in the nation," the Patriot Ledger of Quincy editorialized shortly after the new provisions were approved.
With the revised law now in effect, there's no better time than the present for the legislature to correct its mistake. That is, if legislators actually consider it a mistake to thumb their noses at the public's right to know.