Sun of Lowell Prevails in Public Records Dispute Against Westford Officials

By Samantha Allen

samantha_allenSelectmen in the town of Westford, Mass., have to release emails exchanged during what the state is calling a “serial deliberation” about whether to pay a retiring fire chief $25,000.

The Sun requested this spring all emails related to the negotiations. Westford Town Manager Jodi Ross said there were about 1,500 pages of emails that would cost the newspaper about $8,000 to access. Suspecting serial deliberations, given the high number of emails on the subject, The Sun submitted a complaint with the secretary of state in April.

The state attorney general’s office found after poring through hundreds of pages of records that the town manager sent group emails to all five sitting selectmen on a few occasions. (Read AG’s decision here). “One-way communication” is allowed under the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, though email communication in this way is usually discouraged. The violations in this case occurred when selectmen hit the “reply all” button to further discuss matters of public record.

Hanne Rush, assistant attorney general, found that three violations had occurred. Selectmen now have to release three specific email exchanges which addressed Fire Chief Richard Rochon’s departure. In the first one, selectmen emailed back and forth a few questions related to an offered separation agreement put forward by Rochon’s attorney. One selectman asked the others to weigh in — an improper request, as Rush determined, because the discussion would occur outside executive session. In other exchanges, selectmen coordinated when and where to meet to sign a going-away card for the chief in advance of his retirement party.

Rush wrote that the AG’s office typically recommends public officials avoid all communication by email to prevent any issues.

“We find the board violated the Open Meeting Law by sending electronic communications discussing public business within its jurisdiction to a quorum of its members,” she wrote, adding that determining “which tasks are merely ‘administrative’ can be challenging and email communication between a quorum of public body members — however innocent — easily can create the appearance of secret deliberations.”

The current and former selectmen chairmen said they viewed the infractions as minor.

“I don’t think we did anything egregious. … Lesson learned,” said former Chairman Kelly Ross, adding he was only comparing notes ahead of a scheduled executive session to save some time. “I guess we won’t do that anymore.”

Current Chairman Andrea Peraner-Sweet issued a statement saying out of 1,500 pages of emails, selectmen now have to release “only” three.

“The board takes the Open Meeting Law very seriously and will continue to be as vigilant as it always is,” she wrote.

Manager Ross, no relation to Selectman Ross, had called out The Sun in a public meeting earlier this year, stating that filing an Open Meeting Law complaint was costing the town money in legal expenses. She insisted there were no violations and The Sun was wrong to pursue the complaint.

Asked about the state ruling, Manager Ross said that “people do make mistakes and if we erred on one day… I’m sorry.”

Samantha was a reporter for the Sun of Lowell with Digital First Media. She now works for CRN Magazine.

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