The following is an excerpt from a blog post originally published by the New England First Amendment Center. The center is a joint undertaking of the New England First Amendment Coalition and Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.
By Gerard F. Russell
In May, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette filed two complaints with the Sturbridge, Mass., Board of Selectmen — one over an executive session and the other over remote participation in an open meeting.
The board’s custom has been to invite residents to call selectmen at the end of its meeting and ask questions. The practice has been that selectmen repeat the callers’ questions to those in attendance and viewing on cable television.
In a May 13 meeting, one caller’s question was not repeated because, selectmen said, the question involved a personnel matter. The T&G complaint focused on the Open Meeting Law language that requires remote participation “to be audible” for those in attendance.
In a June 10 meeting, selectmen voted unanimously to end the phone-in question practice, calling it a “sad day” and referring to the T&G complaint as “nonsense.”
A second complaint was filed by the newspaper for an action taken during the same meeting. The board met in an executive session to discipline the fire chief, but also took it upon itself to vote to eliminate a second position in the fire department.
Although the decision to go into executive session to take up the fire chief matter was appropriate, the newspaper questioned under which exemption the portion of the closed meeting that dealt with the elimination of the other position was held.
Even the town administrator acknowledged there was no such exemption that would have allowed the board to take the vote behind closed doors. Since the board bristled publicly at both complaints and has maintained it did not err, the newspaper will seek a definitive opinion from the Massachusetts attorney general’s office.