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Attorney General rejects allegations of Open Meeting Law violation in Scituate

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  May 13, 2013 04:35 PM

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The state attorney general has absolved Scituate officials of any wrongdoing in a ruling over an alleged violation of the Open Meeting Law.

Officials from the Attorney General’s Office have been reviewing the case since September, when the Patriot Ledger newspaper sent in a complaint alleging that the Board of Selectmen had illegally hosted a meeting in private.

According to the Ledger, the board was going against the rules of a 2010 law requiring most government meetings to be public.

After a thorough review of the minutes and video of the proceedings, Assistant Attorney General Hanne Rush sided with the town.

Town officials hailed the ruling.

“This ruling demonstrates that the Board, in consultation with Town Counsel, acted appropriately and complies with the requirements and precepts of the Open Meeting Law,” said Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi in an email. “The Board has, and will continue to observe its regulations and will remain vigilant.”

The allegation stemmed off several meetings between the Board of Selectmen and former member of the Scituate Housing Authority Maryanne Lewis, who had refused to sign certain documents required by the state.

Though the Housing Authority had tried to work through the issue internally, problems persisted, and Housing Authority members sought to remove Lewis from the board.

A hearing was subsequently scheduled with selectmen, who decided to meet in executive session, or in private, to discuss Lewis and her possible termination from the Housing Authority.

Although most government meetings are required to be in public, several exemptions exist from the rule, including those to discuss the discipline or dismissal of a public employee.

Under this exemption, the board closed off the meeting to the public and asked press to leave the room.

Selectmen met twice to discuss the issue, both times in executive session.

While Ledger reporters felt the circumstances of the situation did not warrant executive session privilege, the AG's office sided with the town.

“The Board’s discussion surrounding Ms. Lewis’ proposed resignation was appropriate under executive session Purpose 1, as it related to the Board regarding the negotiated resolution to the complaint,” Rush said in the ruling.

The ruling goes on to say that the selectmen did not deviate from the state purpose of the executive session, and that selectmen followed the required procedures to do so.

Though the ruling sided with the town, Rush said the town’s approach was not flawless.

According to the ruling, the town should have notified Lewis each time before an executive session meeting, even when meetings were postponed.

Because the case has been resolved, with Lewis resigning upon the town’s agreement to file certain legislation, selectmen should also release the minutes from both the Aug. 7 and Sept. 4 executive session meetings.

“The Board should now review and publically release those minutes and any documents or exhibits used at the executive session,” the ruling states.

Regardless of those next steps, even selectmen are relieved by the ruling.

“I do feel exonerated, and the whole board should,” said Selectman Richard Murray.

Murray said he was pleased to see the attorney general delved so thoroughly into the issue, and hope this proves that the town remains vigilant about being transparent.

“I was saddened when the Ledger felt obligated to bring this up,” Murray said. “We were squeaky clean, and asked town counsel what to do. We just followed the steps.”

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