Thursday, June 3, 2010

Special privileges for the school committee?

Time to send everyone to another Open Meeting Law class.

Paul Babin, reporter with the Sandwich Broadsider, reported this week (prior to last night’s school committee meeting) that the committee would have to revote the superintendent’s contract.

See the entire story here.

The disturbing part of Babin’s article centers around the Open Meeting Law (OML) and what is public versus privileged information.

Committee member Shaun Cahill questioned why the local media knew of Shack’s decision before the school committee. He said he heard about the ruling on the radio an hour and a half before the committee was notified.

“We talk about people spreading gossip in this town—this is a classic example of people getting a little bit of information and running with it.

“I hope that doesn’t happen again whoever the guilty party is that’s out there leaking this information. This is privileged information that’s supposed to go out to school committee members,” Cahill said.

Cahill encouraged the committee to challenge Shack’s ruling. He said the Open Meeting law is designed to prevent public officials from conducting business behind closed doors and that the committee obviously wasn’t trying to do that.

“There was no notion that [the meeting] was done behind anybody’s back as everyone at the [April 28] meeting voted in favor of the recess to meet 48 hours later,” Cahill said.

Cahill’s summary of the OML’s intent is essentially correct, but in order to ensure that scheduled meetings are known by and accessible to concerned citizens, a key component of the OML is the requirement for public postings at least 48 hours before convening.

His assumption is that everyone who is interested in the activities of the school committee either attends their meetings or watches them live on cable access. That, of course, is not the case. Some people have satellite, some people have rabbit ears, and some people have other things to do on Wednesday nights.

For these people to know about a scheduled meeting, absent any other radio, television or newspaper accounts, they can rely on the meeting notice being posted at the town clerk’s office. There was no such notice posted. Even if it had been posted, it wouldn’t have met the 48-hour requirement.

What bothers me more, much more, is the notion that the Assistant District Attorney’s decision on an OML violation is “privileged” information. That is a public document, folks.

Matt Pitta, news director at WXTK, had been chasing this story since it was reported that ADA Shack was reviewing the Friday meeting for propriety. Pitta called the DA’s office every day inquiring about the status of Shack’s investigation.

When Pitta called on the day that Shack released his findings, Pitta acquired a copy of the report and wrote and aired the news story.

There was no “leak.”

There was no “gossip.”

There was no “privilege.”

11 comments:

  1. I am guessing here as to motivation, but isn’t it likely that Mr. Cahill was merely expressing a degree of real frustration with the fact that so many in Town, including Selectmen, members of the media and others had learned of the contents of opinion letter before it was delivered to the School Committee? I doubt that Mr. Cahill was actually trying to make a definitive statement of the law.
    Debating the meaning and import of Open Meeting Law(s) has sort of become a sport in Town – the Selectmen have in recent years raised it to an art form.
    I suppose for some it’s far easier to talk about Open Meeting Law and when and where you post meetings and the exact meaning of the term “notice” than to thoughtfully and candidly discuss the many challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for our community.

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  2. Based on your blog post Randy, we can assume that you must have spoken with Matt Pitta, news director at WXTK, about this story. You not only describe his investigative processes, but you know that he “had been chasing this story since ADA Shack began reviewing the Friday meeting for propriety.”
    And, you knew “Pitta called the DA’s office every day inquiring about the status of Shack’s investigation.”
    Your self admissions suggest that you two have a somewhat close and long-standing relationship. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing improper.
    But, again, as I noted in my first post, given how everybody seems to call everybody to “spread the word”, you can certainly begin to understand the frustrations a School Committee member might feel when he or she is the last to hear about a written communication between the DAs office and the School Committee.

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  3. You assume a lot, my friend. Everything I wrote regarding Matt Pitta I heard this morning on the radio out of his own mouth. I know him, but I don't have any inside connection to him.

    I understand the frustration, but it should be directed at the right person. If the news guy had this document an hour and a half before the school committee got it, I think I'd ask why such an important decision wasn't shared immediately with the committee by the administrative staff.

    On the other hand, the simple explanation to this might be that Matt's timing happened to be perfect (for him) and that the school department simply didn't get the document as quickly. That I don't know.

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  4. Lots of questions, too few answers. However, when one asks a question of Mrs. Marshall, the answers are very interesting. Take last night, for example, when a school employee and local taxpayer, asked Mrs. Marshall "why would you ever allow Mrs. Kangas to sit at the table during a meeting and make faces and mouth sarcastic comments to members of the audience?" the response was "they started it". Really -- what is this 5th grade? Mrs. Marshall was defensive and dismissive. Worse -- let's ask Mrs. Kangas for an articulate quote on the matter. If she doesn't hang herself for an open meeting law violation, she may just use a four letter word and give you the dismissive hand gesture that some obnoxious teenagers like to use. I'm not so sure we're going to get a straight answer from Mrs. Marshall. Although, maybe she had a meeting with Mrs. Linehan, Crossman and Kangas to discuss the ADA's opinion. Similar to the meeting they had to determine who the next chair and co-chair would be. Good luck getting a straight answer from the gang that can't shoot straight!

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  5. Sorry about the assumption -- wish you'd mentioned hearing Pitta on the radio. My bad.

    Cahill is a good man and he's got good reason(s) to be frustrated.

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  6. I hope the School Committee just gets on with it and votes the contract in a properly posted meeting. All of this discussion does nothing but distract from the real issue. What will we do if the contract is not extended and this Superintendent hits the road? Who could be an interim? We don't have an assistant superintendent or permanent special ed director. We are headed into some really tough budgets. Who will the SC get to replace Mary Ellen? Life may not be perfect with Dr. Johnson as superintendent, but I hope the SC thinks long and hard about the alternative.

    I also have to say that the article about DY in today's CC Time struck me. They are working to cut $305,105 from their budget. Dr. Johnson cut a whole lot more and with little obvious impact to programs and less fanfare. Not sure how she did this and it likely ruffled some feathers, but maybe that is exactly what we needed!

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  7. Why doesn't this town get on with it. One may wonder why people don't vote, but I don't because I know that all this horse dung back and forth does not help anyone. If this keeps up, I will not vote either.

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  8. Reality is, she may get the contract and leave anyway --- who in their right miond would want to put up with this crap all the time?

    As far as someone not voting because they don't like the "back and forth" -- excellent point. God forbid we listen to any opposing viewpoints before shooting ourselves in the foot!

    I think Randy performs a valuable service here that is certainly not provided by the local press. The fact that some abuse it is inevitable.

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  9. First, Mr. Guerin, how do you know what Cahill's intent was? How do you know he was frustrated? Is it guess work on your part or did you speak with him first?

    Second, Person who spoke about a committee person ? Have you noticed Cahill's tone? Both are caring people, but will not budge on the issue of the school superintendent.

    Third, Does anyone ever discuss real issues? All school committe people don't, the newspapers don't, WXTK doesn't, teachers don't, finance committee doesn't. I would like to know will buyiing buses and maintaining them (somewhere) save us money? Who will buy new buses when needed (after the superintendent leaves) and what will they buy then with? Who will pay for employee benefits, and with what will they pay it with (maybe the townside budget)? Does Mrs. Johnson know that there are costs involved with busing? Who will pay if a kindergardent kid gets left on the bus? Who is liable if someone is killed in an accident, and, who will represent Sandwich in a lawsuit? On Camp Burgess; will the kind of student need change every year? If so, what happens to the teachers--will they qualify for every need? If someone is hurt or killed, who pays, camp burgess or Town of Sandwich? How much will it cost? How much will it save? Where are the numbers?

    My point is that while Cahill rails about something that is a lost cause, he, as his cohorts on the committee fail to answer questions. If one does not read this blog, one may not know how a rumor will spread that what was done illegally is actually legal.

    Lastly, please please school committee allow your open forum voices to be answered when there points can easily be answered, refuted, or substantiated. Many of their points never get answered, but they do sow seeds of rumor.

    Lin

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  10. I saw the meeting on tv last nite and while I support the decision, I feel that certain members on the board acted like kids!!! The insults and "What do we do next" comments were babish and not called for. This is a country were everyone as their own opions and concerns about what they think and feel about different subjects. Certain poeple on the board never had children in the school system(what gives her the right to make decisions about our school?? It wasn't good enough for her kid??) I am a graduate from the high school as well as my children and I have live in this town all my life and I have never seen the schools this bad. The teachers used to be funny and nice and enjoyed comming to work and now your lucky if they smile. We need people who can make decisions with out having other people texting them from behind the scenes. The way Mrs. Linehan was attacked by Mrs. Susko was uncalled for and she needs to grow up and move on and she needs to aplogize to her on tv!! The teachers should not be punished by the administration for having differnet than hers. People need to grow up and take the children into consideration and leave personal feeling at home.

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  11. I am not a lawyer, but I do see that lawyers and pseudo lawyers write on this blog. I do try to read, as best that I can, to verify certain statements on this blog. During my research of the Massachusetts open meeting law, I see that the the DA's office enforces the open meeting law. In the case of the school vote on Dr. Johnson's contract, The DA's office said that the meeting should have been posted, it was not, and that it invalidated the vote. I think that it might be the same as someone who gets a parking ticket. She can agree she parked illegally and pay a fine, or she can go to court to get a final ajudication. I believe, by taking the advice of its counsel, the School Committee admitted that it was wrong. Now, it seems that the guidlines of the open meeting law that was published last year by the Attorney General's office indicates that posting of the meeting has to meet the 48 hour criteria (Goodle "open meeting law Massachusetts" and you will get it). In order for this to get to a judge, then 3 citizens would have to bring it there. I am assuming that the minority of the board could and probably should do this. If they feel so strongly that it was illegal, I encourage them to do so, if its not too late. It will be heard in an expiditious manner and could avoid any future lawsuit. Again, not being a lawyer, I would think that if the minority of the School Committee feels that the meeting adjournment was not necessary and that they want to protect the Town and maybe save the superintendent's job, they would stop saying things, often wrong, and do what has to be done. I would appreciate any comments on this post from constitutional and other lawyers and also politicians, including former ones.

    Just an aside for those who think there is precendent in not posting 48 hours with Town Meeting, Town Meeting is not covered by the law with respect to adjournament.

    I firmly believe that talking does nothing for those who think they know the law, only their action to move the matter towards final ajudication will make it happen.

    In other words, put your actions where your mouth is, that is the only way to get this resolved. Don't be afraid to fail or be wrong in your beliefs.

    There are always some who have a lot to say, but do not do anything about it, there are always people who tell us what is right or wrong, but will not run for office.

    Let us all get involved.


    God Bless America and thank God for rules and laws.

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