Thursday, October 29, 2009

SJC To Decide How 'Open' Mass. Open Meeting Law Should Be

John Adams Courthouse, home to the SJCImage via Wikipedia
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts next week will hear arguments in District Attorney for the Northern District v. Wayland School Committee (SJC-10406), which turns on how broadly to interpret the exceptions to the Commonwealth's Open Meeting Law (M.G.L. c. 39, sec. 23B).

As reported by attorney and  blogger Bob Ambrogi (, who submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Assn., the case involves an out of view school committee meeting that addressed the performance evaluation of the school superintendent.  The closed door session was deemed lawful by a trial judge, who relied on an exception in M.G.L. c. 39, sec. 23B that allows officials privately to "conduct strategy sessions in preparation for negotiations with nonunion personnel, to conduct collective bargaining sessions or contract negotiations with nonunion personnel."  The judge reasoned that evaluation of the superintendent came within this exception because the superintendent's contractual compensation is influenced by the committee's evaluation, so that the evaluation is thereby part of the contract negotiation.

The lower court's ruling ignores a more germane exception under the statute that permits excluding the public so that officials can "discuss the reputation, character physical condition or mental health rather than the professional competence of an individual [emphasis supplied]." The exception suggests an airing about an individual's professional competence should occur in open session.

If the SJC upholds the lower court's interpretation, it will make the "contract negotiation" a catch-all exception and closed-door meetings by elected officials will be considerably harder to pry open.

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