Friday, December 28, 2007

TEXT: MediaNews Group story about Coakley proposals for state Open Meeting Act

To read the Open Meeting Law, go to:

This is a copy of a story written by the MediaNews Group news bureau at the State House in Boston about impending changes in the Massachusetts Open Meeting law to be proposed by Attorney General Martha Coakley.

The original version of the story should be viewed at:

Open Meeting Law By Hillary Chabot,

Article Last Updated: 11/30/2007 11:31:05 AM EST

BOSTON -- Attorney General Martha Coakley is expected to announce changes to the Open Meeting Law "any day now," according to the executive director of the state's newspaper publishing association.

Coakley's proposal would update the rules surrounding public officials who meet in private, officially known as executive session. "They are working on a legal proposal and we will see that soon," said Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspapers Publishers Association.

A representative of Coakley's office was expected to serve on a three-person panel discussing the law at a MNPA meeting in Boston yesterday, but had to bow out at the last minute because the changes haven't been announced. Coakley spokesman Henry Pierre declined to comment on the changes or the missed meeting.

The law requires all meetings of government bodies to be open to the public, with nine exceptions. There are no fines for violating the law. State Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New
Bedford, filed a bill which would attach a $1,000 fine for boards and a $500 fine for individuals who meet behind closed doors without a valid exemption.Cabral served on a panel at the MNPA meeting yesterday discussing the law. He said Coakley has shown interest in his changes. He said he has no specifics of the Coakley proposal.

Cabral's bill also would create a new office under the Attorney General called the Office of Public Accountability, meant to reach decisions on complaints about violations within 90 days.

Tom Urbelis, a lawyer representing North Andover and other municipalities, said the fines aren't needed and the law could hurt public service. "You do a very effective job of publicizing what you consider to be violations of the open meetings law," Urbelis said. "There is already an exodus of qualified people in public service. There's no doubt if there was any possibility they would be fined they wouldn't run and would resign the day it passed." Cabral said he doesn't believe the fine will change participation in public service. "People like to serve and are honored when they are asked," Cabral said. This is the second time Cabral has filed the bill. The first time it died in committee thanks to lukewarm reception in the Legislature.

Publishers later heard Chief Justice Margaret Marshall speak on many issues facing the court, including a recent ruling which would allow government officials wide berth when deciding what documents are public under the public-records law. Marshall, who rose to national attention after leading a SJC decision to legalize gay marriage, recently exempted government documents which fall under attorney-client privilege from the public-records law. Marshall said her rulings interpret the law, and can't include her feelings about whether government officials will be honest in determining what qualifies as public.

"The very nice thing about being a judge is two parties or three or four bring us the case and they say, 'What's the law?' and we tell them what the law is," Marshall said. "That's my role. What I can't introduce into that is what's my personal view about whether or not I trust the government."

The Sun has made 27 public-records requests in the past two years and is currently in the middle of a battle for a report detailing the mismanagement around the construction of the Stoklosa School. City officials have used the attorney-client privilege exemption to deny the records request.


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