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Attorney general faults Scituate on Open Meeting Law violations

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  July 30, 2013 04:07 PM

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Scituate selectmen said they had changed their procedures even before the state attorney general's recent ruling that the board was not being transparent enough with the public.

The attorney general has been reviewing several Open Meeting Law allegations against the Board of Selectmen since the Scituate Mariner filed a complaint in May 2012. Allegations ranged from concerns over how the board enters executive session, or excuses itself from public meetings, to what officials discuss there.

In a ruling issued July 17, Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Sclarsic found fault with the board.

“We find that the Board violated the Open Meeting Law by failing to state with sufficient specificity the purpose for multiple executive sessions; by failing to list in its minutes documents used during open session; and by failing to approve multiple Town officials' employment contracts in open session,” read the ruling. “We find that the Board did not discuss the professional competence of an individual in executive session.”

Town officials said the problems were mainly procedural, and noted that of the two substantive matters in the complaint, one was dismissed and the town was not at fault for the other.

“The Board was found to be in violation of three things, all of which were procedural,” said Selectman John Danehey

Even within those flaws, town officials said since the complaint was filed, Open Meeting Law conformance has been “a priority,” and changes have already been made.

“The Board and the Town Administrator accept fully responsibility for our non-compliance with certain provisions of the Open Meeting Law as it is our duty to insure the town’s business complies with all rules and regulations,” said selectmen chair Shawn Harris in the letter read during a July 23 selectmen meeting,

According to the rules governing town boards, selectmen can enter a session closed to the public for a variety of reasons, including the discussion of collective bargaining or to consider the purchase or lease of property.

While the board excused itself from the public eye with due cause, the attorney general said selectmen needed to be more specific in detailing that reason to the public.

“While the agenda listed the Board would be discussing union and non-union contracts, it did not specify which unions or individuals in the posting, as required by amendments to the Open Meeting Law in 2010,” selectmen admitted in the public letter.

The board also spoke about properties in town, but did not specify which properties.

The ruling also faults the board for failing to include in the minutes a list of the documents the board reviewed, specifically that of Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi’s salary increase.

Though an executive session vote of Vinchesi and several others’ contracts and salaries was also deemed to be a violation, the ruling did not fault the town.

“We do not find an intentional violation of the Law,” the ruling states.

For one thing, the town relied on the advice of counsel in voting in the contracts.

Second, Vinchesi discovered that the action was in violation of Open Meeting Law after reading about a similar instance in the April 2012 issue of “The Beacon,” the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s monthly publication.

The board posted plans to revise the contracts in open session the next meeting.

Sclarsic entirely struck down an allegation that the town had discussed a performance evaluation of the town administrator in executive session.

While town officials were asked by Vinchesi to take into account “fairness, equity and performance” in its deliberations of her salary and contract, the board did not conduct a discussion of Vinchesi’s work, and the allegation did not stand, he said.

While the ruling orders the town to immediately comply with all Open Meeting Laws, Scituate officials said they have already begun to do so.

“Since the complaint was filed more than 13 months ago, the Board has been posting notices consistent with the Attorney General’s guidelines, undergone training, created an Open Meeting Law page on its website, and informed all staff and committees of the OML requirements,” Harris’s letter said.

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