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City Hall Adjusts to Open Meeting Law Changes | Post Somerville

City Hall Adjusts to Open Meeting Law Changes

by Tom Nash on August 31, 2010

Stricter state rules regarding how municipalities release information about meetings have met positive reception from both City Hall and transparency advocates, but the guidelines remain unclear even though enforcement has already begun.

Aside from the State Legislature redirecting enforcement responsibilities from District Attorneys to the Attorney General, the biggest change, which took effect July 1, is that meeting agendas must be posted 48 hours in advance. For Somerville, which has long worked right until the meeting hour to tweak agendas, it’s been a slow adjustment.

“I haven’t met the Open Meeting Law requirement until I post a notice that includes the agenda,” City Clerk John Long said before the Board of Aldermen’s Aug. 26 meeting. “I’m trying to get everyone in City Hall used to working with a much shorter deadline.”

Barry Rafkind, who runs Somerville Voices, has sparred with the Board of Aldermen and the city in the past over transparency issues. He said the new rules will help the meetings keep from falling into obscurity.

“It’s important that the public knows about and attend these meetings, because that’s where decisions are made about how our tax dollars are spent and municipal resources are allocated,” Rafkind said. “It’s also important to have the public there to keep elected and appointed officials aware of who they are representing and serving.”

Alderman-at-Large Jack Connolly, who serves as the Board president, said the new rules reflect the shift in technology over the past decade, noting the meetings are now streaming on the Internet as they happen.

“In the old days, (the agenda deadline) used to be 2 p.m.,” Connolly said. “Things change, and it’s more transparent now. I’m delighted someone in San Diego can watch the meetings live.”

While Connolly said that although last-minute additions to the agenda by the Mayor’s Office are still allowed under the law and that aldermen are still allowed to submit late items, “(the new deadline) forces everyone to focus on their priorities.”

The changes also stipulate that meeting notices and agendas must be available 24/7 – and that posting them online doesn’t count. Long said the requirement has been a logistical headache, especially since the regulations won’t be finalized until October.

After considering placing a bulletin board or electronic kiosk outside City Hall, officials decided the Public Safety Building’s 24/7 accessibility made the most sense as the location.

“I’ll be happier once the kiosk is set up — once we are compliant – but we’re going in that direction,” Long said.

 Other Notable Changes to the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law

  • All documents used or referenced in a public meeting are now considered part of the record.
  • Members of the public citing documents at hearings are expected to bring copies to submit.
  • The revision spells out more clearly that all electronic communication between city officials is public record – an issue debated by the Board of Aldermen last year.
  • Documents used in executive session are now public record.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

somervilleguy September 7, 2010 at 3:42 PM

Please ask The clerk why he hasn’t posted the aldermans agenda all summer on the Somerville website?

Courtney of Ward5Online.Com September 19, 2010 at 5:22 PM

A couple of the summer meetings were cancelled; the BOA resumed on August 26th. All meeting information was transferred from the City’s website to the City’s meeting portal: http://somervillecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Default.aspx

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