Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Q/A with Suffolk County DA Dan Conley

Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley has responded to five crowdsourced questions put together by Universal Hub's Adam Gaffin.

I was particularly curious about the question submitted (not by me) about the Open Meeting Law:
Question: Why does your office not prosecute violations of the Open Meeting Law? Or, if you don't have the resources to devote to such prosecutions, how about providing some advice and assistance to the citizens who are willing to take up the cause of transparency in government?

DA Conley: We do handle open meeting law complaints and, through it, we do our best to foster transparency and accountability. The open meeting law is very broadly written - and intentionally so - but its fundamental purpose is to ensure that citizens have access to the decisions made by their representatives. There are few state laws so important to the practice of democracy, and I was very glad to learn that so many Universal Hub readers voted for this question.

As District Attorney and as a former member of the Boston City Council, I can tell you from first-hand experience that very few violations of the open meeting law are intentional. Most people in government try to act in the spirit of the law, but because the law is broadly written, it can sometimes lead to disagreements over the interpretation and applicability of the law even among reasonable, well-intentioned people (including lawyers). There is also sometimes misunderstanding over what the remedies the law provides. It can impose fines on institutions found in violation, but rarely against individuals; it can order a correction of any past transgressions, usually by making public any meeting minutes or information previously withheld; and it can order an end to any practices not in keeping with the law. As DA, I've found the best course is usually to explain to officials, in writing, the rules by which they must abide and bring them into voluntary compliance.

My advice to citizens who really take this issue to heart - and, in fact, to every citizen - is to participate in the life of your community. It's a rewarding experience and one that, I think, will reinforce my contention that most of those in public office really do care about what the average resident thinks and therefore genuinely wants as open and transparent a process as possible.

Beyond that, should you encounter what you feel is a violation of the law, first bring it to the attention of the offending agency. Document your experience in a letter, then follow up with a phone call. If the agency or its representative is not responsive, then don't hesitate to bring it to my office - we can and will take action.

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