Who’s Counting? Globe Probe Raises Doubts on Public Meeting Quorums

By Todd Wallack

wallackBOSTON — While writing a story recently about the Massachusetts state pharmacy board, I noticed something odd: Only half the board members showed up for a meeting last summer — too few for a quorum — but the board members went ahead with the meeting anyway and voted on one item after the next.

It turns out it was part of a much wider problem, raising questions about how frequently obscure boards comply with all the rules for public meetings throughout New England.

Usually, boards need a majority of members to show up for a meeting for any votes to count. But when I checked past Massachusetts pharmacy board minutes, I found at least two other cases where at least half the members were absent, but the rest of the members voted on items anyway.

Then it occurred to me if that if the problem existed with one licensing board operating under the state Department of Public Health, it might affect similar boards as well. So I decided to check the minutes.

Sure enough, after spending an hour flipping through a box full of documents at the DPH offices, I found six other boards had the same problem: The boards voted at least once on items even though they didn’t have enough members to hold a legal quorum.

In some cases, it seems the agency was confused about how to interpret the law. The agency spokesman told me lawyers thought they only needed a majority of the people currently sitting on the board, not a majority of all the positions on the board. So if a five-member board had two vacancies, the state argued it needed only two members for a legal quorum instead of the usual three.  But the attorney general ruled that interpretation was erroneous, citing a 1982 court decision.

And in other cases, even the state agency admitted three state boards clearly violated the rules because they didn’t even have a majority of sitting members or fell short of a specific number specified for some boards in the law. For instance, the law for one board said it needed four members for a quorum, but the state held meetings with just three people instead.

The revelation now puts scores of votes in legal jeopardy and raises questions about the competence of the boards.

It’s also a reminder that it’s worth paying attention to obscure boards that normally avoid scrutiny.

Todd Wallack is a staff reporter with The Boston Globe.  He can be reached at todd.wallack@globe.com.


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