Josh Cutler: Open meetings? Hey legislators, practice what ye preach!

Josh Cutler

Time to apply Open Meeting Law to State Legislature

In the wake of another lawmaker scandal the Massachusetts Legislature passed an update to the state’s Open Meeting Law that took affect in July. While the merits of this latest change are open to debate, the overall success of the Open Meeting Law is not.

Since it was first enacted in 1958, the Open Meeting Law has ensured that the people’s business is conducted in public. Meetings must be posted in advance, agendas and minutes must be made available and meetings must be conducted out in the open. For that reason the law is sometimes referred to as the “Sunshine Act” and it’s an apt metaphor. Good government, like a flower garden, requires sunshine to flourish.

In certain cases there is a legitimate need to conduct government business in private, such as for collective bargaining negotiations or discussing personnel matters, and the Open Meeting also provides for that.

It’s not a perfect system, but it has worked pretty well over the years and we are all the better for it. But there’s just one problem. While the Open Meeting Law applies to municipal government, including city councils, school boards and boards of selectmen, as well as many state agencies, the Massachusetts State
Legislature is exempt.

That’s right, the governmental body that wrote the Open Meeting Law exempted itself from its requirements! Few areas of government are more in need of transparency than our state legislature and yet they decided what works in 351 cities and towns wouldn’t work for them.

The recent debate over casino gambling and slot parlors is a case in point. All the important decisions were made behind closed doors in private. The public was shut out of the process. It’s not even accurate to say that our voice was heard through our elected officials because in most cases even rank and file legislators had no idea what was happening. That’s no way to govern.

This is wrong on many levels, but there is a solution: apply the Open Meeting Law to the legislature. Let’s make our state representatives follow the same rules our school committee members, selectmen, and city councilors have to follow. Make conference committees open to the public. Require roll calls and publicly
posted minutes for legislative hearings. Instead of hashing out deals in closed-door caucus or in the members lounge, let’s make our representatives actually debate out in the open, on the floor of the House. Legitimate issues that demand privacy can still be discussed behind closed doors.

Cities and towns have learned to operate under the Open Meeting Law over the last 40 years. So, too, can our state legislature. Ask yourself this: what form of government is more accessible, effective and responsive –– your local town hall or Beacon Hill?

The Open Meeting Law may be cumbersome at times, but that’s democracy. It may not always be pretty, but as one famed practitioner remarked, it’s the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>