Friday, June 08, 2007

Suffolk DA: BRA's Institutional Task Forces in Violation of Massachusetts Open Meeting Law

The Boston Globe reported today on an opinion issued by the Office of the Suffolk County District Attorney, Daniel Conley. The June 1, 2007 letter states that two of the Boston Redevelopment Authority's institutional task forces -- the Harvard Allston Task Force and the Boston College Task Force -- are subject to the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law (G.L. c. 39, Sections 23A,B,C). The argument follows closely the Attorney General's Guidelines on interpreting and applying the Law.

The DA's office's opinion further identifies a series of violations by each of the two task forces. The most serious of the alleged violations were holding secret meetings -- not announced publicly in advance, and to which the public was not allowed to attend. In at least one meeting by each of the two task forces, they met privately with both the BRA and the institution (Harvard University or Boston College).

The DA's office's opinion was the result of two complaints lodged by me on March 1, 2007 (regarding the Harvard Allston Task Force) and April 18, 2007 (regarding both task forces). A more recent complaint of a violation was not included in the opinion, presumably because insufficient time had elapsed to provide the BRA to respond to the factual basis for that allegation. I have reason to believe that there have been one or two additional complaints filed with the DA's office from persons and/or organizations.

No, I did not tell the Boston Globe about the DA's opinion; they found out about it on their own, decided to write a story, and then called me.

I think the opinion issued by the DA's office can be summarized very simply:
The BRA's institutional task forces should conduct their public business in public, not in private.
The opinion instructs the BRA:
  1. To fix the various past violations by publishing minutes of all meetings, both public and private, that have been held;
  2. To instruct the task forces on the applicability of the Open Meeting Law and its requirements;
  3. To take steps to prevent future violations; and
  4. To agree to conduct future meetings in public.
Personally, I don't understand why the BRA might be motivated to encourage those advisory bodies to hold secret meetings -- which are now clearly identified as in violation of the Law -- with the BRA and the universities. Maybe such speculation should be left to conspiracy theorists, but it sounds like they are trying to push processes, such as secret meetings, to pursue some "unknown" agenda of the BRA. I wish they would go back to the regulatory duties of their agency "reviewing proposed development projects," rather than possibly pushing the agenda of "encouraging growth industries."

Transparency in government is a good thing that should be supported by the public and public officials alike. It dismays me that our public agency, the BRA, seems opposed to the concept. Even if they argue that the task forces are not subject to the Law, they could easily instruct the task forces to follow all of the Law's requirements voluntarily as a matter of good public policy.

Finally, I sincerely doubt that the members of these two task forces were knowingly conducting their meetings in violation of the Open Meeting Law. The burden should rightly have been on the BRA's legal counsel to advise the task forces accurately on the Law and what it requires of them. I hope that BRA's legal counsel now puts this problem behind them by issuing clear guidelines to the task forces on how to conduct their meetings consistent with the Law.

See a previous posting for more information on the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law.

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