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A Cautionary Tale for Municipal Officials: The SJC clarifies the Open Meeting Law’s “deliberation exemption”

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Pierce and Mandell, P.C.By: Michael C. Fee

      The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s recent ruling in Boelter v. Board of Selectmen of Wayland (SJC-12353, April 5, 2018) interprets and clarifies, for the first time, the meaning of the term “deliberation,” which was added to the Open Meeting Law in July 2010. The Open Meeting Law requires that, with the exception of executive sessions, “all meetings of a public body shall be open to the public.” General Laws c. 30A, § 20 (a). The statute defines a “meeting” as “a deliberation by a public body with respect to any matter within the body’s jurisdiction,” subject to certain limited exclusions. G.L. c. 30A, § 18.

      A “deliberation,” is “an oral or written communication through any medium, including electronic mail, between or among a quorum of a public body on any public business within its jurisdiction.” The Open Meeting Law provides, however, that the term “deliberation” does not encompass the “distribution of a meeting agenda, scheduling information or distribution of other . . . reports or documents that may be discussed at a meeting, provided that no opinion of a member is expressed.” Id.

      While the importance of the Open Meeting Law cannot be understated, it is clear that the parameters it places on public officials are myriad and sometimes not entirely intuitive. Prior to the Legislature’s amendment of the statute in 2010, the Open Meeting Law defined “deliberation” as “a verbal exchange between a quorum of members of a governmental body attempting to arrive at a decision on any public business within its jurisdiction.” See G.L. c. 39, § 23A, as appearing in St. 1975, c. 303, § 3. The 2010 amendment broadened the law’s definition of “deliberation,” and affirmed that a “deliberation” could encompass “any medium,” not just verbal communication. At the same time, however, the Legislature made clear that public bodies could distribute materials internally in advance of public meetings without running afoul of the statute’s proscription on “deliberation.”

      In Boelter, the chair of the Wayland Select Board had circulated to all members, in advance of a public meeting where the town administrator’s evaluation was to take place, the members’ individual written evaluations of the town administrator’s performance, as well as a composite evaluation. At the meeting, the Board reviewed, discussed and approved the composite evaluation, and the meeting minutes memorialized that the Board “praised [the town administrator] for his availability and responsiveness to the public, his work ethic, his relationship with town staff, and his accessibility to board and committee members.” Both the composite and individual evaluations were only released to the public following the open meeting.

      The process followed by the Board was subsequently challenged, and plaintiffs argued that the public should have total access to the decision-making process whenever a town official is evaluated. See, e.g., School Comm. Of Wayland, 455 Mass. at 570 (“It is essential to a democratic form of government that the public have broad access to the decisions made by its elected officials and to the way in which the decisions are reached”). Upon review, the Boelter Court acknowledged that the exemption allowing distribution of some materials was likely in response to the practical realities of governmental service, and that by permitting officials to review certain administrative materials and reports in advance, the Legislature sought to enable the more efficient administration of public meetings. It also noted, however, that the overarching purpose of the Open Meeting Law is to ensure transparency in governmental decision-making, and the Legislature specifically outlawed the expression of opinions by board members in any documents circulated to a quorum prior to an open meeting. See Revere v. Massachusetts Gaming Comm’n, 476 Mass. 591, 610 (2017) (“the new version of the Open Meeting Law does not alter our belief that ‘[i]t is essential to a democratic form of government that the public have broad access to the decisions made by its elected officials and to the way in which the decisions are reached’” [citation omitted]).

      In parsing the Wayland Select Board’s actions, the Court took particular note that the materials privately distributed to the members contained “appraisals” of the Town manager’s performance. Although there was no conversation, there was nonetheless an exchange of “thoughts, impressions and conclusions” that was inconsistent with the Open Meeting Law’s requirement that all deliberations take place in public. The Court concluded that the effect of the circulation of the evaluations was that all five board members were aware of the opinions of the other four members in advance of the meeting. As a result, the circulation constituted a deliberation, or a meeting, to which the public did not have access.

      Noting that the Open Meeting Law was intended to ensure that the public is able to see for themselves how public decisions are made, See Revere, 476 Mass. at 610, the Court found that distribution of the individual and composite opinions to a quorum, prior to the meeting, violated the statute’s purpose. See G.L. c. 30A, § 18. Compare School Comm. Of Wayland, 455 Mass. at 570 (“Open meetings provide an opportunity for each member of the governmental body to debate the issues and disclose their personal viewpoints before the governmental body reaches its decision on a matter of public policy” (emphasis supplied); McCrea v. Flaherty, 71 Mass. App. Ct. 637, 641 (2008) (Open Meeting Law “provides for public access to the decision-making process when it is in a formative stage, several steps removed from the eventual result”).

      The ruling in Boelter is both an affirmation of the Open Meeting Law’s overarching goal, transparency in governmental decision-making, and a challenge to public officials striving for administrative efficiency. The decision makes clear to municipal officials that there are now only two types of materials which may be safely distributed to a quorum outside of a public meeting: first, purely procedural or administrative materials (such as agendas), and second, reports or documents to be discussed at a later meeting, so long as such materials do not express the opinion of a board member. Careful municipal officials should consider adopting a general practice of not communicating by email at all except for distributing meeting agendas, scheduling meetings and distributing documents created by non-members to be discussed at meetings, all of which are ministerial tasks specifically sanctioned under the Open Meeting Law.

      Pierce & Mandell partner Michael C. Fee practices in the firm’s real estate and litigation departments. He is a former Town Moderator, Planning Board and Water District Chairman in Sudbury, and a current member of the Truro Open Space Committee. He frequently advises individuals and municipalities regarding public official liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Open Meeting Law, and matters involving public records, zoning, permitting, and land use.

Pierce & Mandell Attorneys Help Merge Golf Associations

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Pierce & Mandell, P.C., Hannah S. SpinelliBy Hannah S. Spinelli

In a historic move, on May 10, 2017 The Women’s Golf Association of Massachusetts, Inc. (“WGAM”) and Massachusetts Golf Association, Inc. (“MGA”) signed a merger agreement turning the two non-profit organizations into one golf association effective January 1, 2018. The interests of both groups will be united and efforts combined to promote the game to all members, male or female. The merged organization will retain the “MGA” name.

Pierce & Mandell, P.C., led by Bob Pierce, Bill Mandell, and Hannah Schindler Spinelli, represented WGAM in the merger and worked to ensure that WGAM’s mission and events (both competitive tournaments and instructional clinics) would be maintained for women within the newly merged MGA. In the official merger announcement, Cathleen Beach, WGAM’s Executive Director, championed the news, stating, “[t]his is an important moment for golf in Massachusetts. Together we will be stronger, more efficient and will reach even more golfers across the state.”

Merger of the two organizations creates an opportunity to maximize resources available to all Massachusetts golfers. MGA President Tom Bagley stated in the merger announcement: “After years of collaborating informally, it became clear to both Associations that we could better utilize all our resources – staff, volunteers and finances – if we work together.” As Tom further indicated, the goal moving forward will be for the merged association to serve all golfers in the Commonwealth. In other prior public remarks, the MGA’s Executive Director, Jesse Menachem, added, “[t]he MGA will greatly benefit from having women even more active in all facets of the organization.” On behalf of WGAM, President Leslie Logan stated, “We are confident that women's golf in Massachusetts will thrive under the new structure. Our membership, championships, events and scholarship programs will be better served by our two organizations coming together.”

By way of background, the MGA came into existence in 1903 and, throughout its time, has grown to include over 360 member clubs, annually sponsors 12 championships, and currently has more than 87,000 member golfers, growing into one of the larger golf associations in the country. MGA’s primary focus has been promoting the game to its member clubs, its individual members, and the general golfing public in the Commonwealth, as well as encouraging the growth of amateur golf.

The Women’s Golf Association of Boston was formed in 1900, before changing its name to WGAM in 1929, with the goal of fostering and promoting interest in women’s golf, and that it did: WGAM currently organizes 24 competitions throughout the year, offers scholarships for junior female golfers, and encourages women of all ages to participate in the sport.

Effective January 1, 2018, the MGA will preserve the traditions of each separate association and continue to grow through collaborative efforts promoting the game of golf. The two organizations initially announced plans to merge after signing a “Letter of Intent to Merge” on November 7, 2016 and each organization formally approved the merger in April, 2017.

Pierce & Mandell, P.C.’s business and real estate attorneys are skilled in all aspects of mergers and acquisitions, and can guide businesses, large or small, for profit or non, through the process to ensure a smooth and successful transaction.

Pierce & Mandell Partners Recognized as Super Lawyers - Boston, MA

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Pierce & Mandell, P.C. is proud to announce that partners Bob Pierce, Bill Mandell, Thomas E. Kenney, Michael Fee, Bob Kirby and Dennis Lindgren have been selected for inclusion in the 2017 Massachusetts Super Lawyers.

Bob Pierce was recognized as a Super Lawyer in the practice of Civil Litigation Defense, Bill Mandell in Health Care Law, Dennis Lindgren in Personal Injury General: Plaintiff and Tom Kenney, Michael Fee and Bob Kirby in Business Litigation.

Super Lawyers is a rating service of outstanding lawyers from more than 70 practice areas who have attained a high-degree of peer recognition and professional achievement. The selection process is multi-phased and includes independent research, peer nominations, and peer evaluations. Rising Stars are those attorneys under the age of 40 who have been nominated by peers for excellence in their chosen practice area. Candidates are then evaluated utilizing twelve indicators of peer recognition and professional achievement. No more than 3 percent of eligible lawyers in Massachusetts are named to the Rising Star list each year.

The Super Lawyers supplement will be published in the November, 2017 issue of Boston Magazine and is widely distributed in regional publications and across the country.

For information or assistance from Pierce & Mandell, P.C., contact us.

Pierce & Mandell Takes to the Links for Children’s Charities

Monday, August 15, 2016

Pierce & Mandell partners Tom Kenney, Bob Pierce, Bob Kirby and Mike Fee tore up Woodland Country Club recently at the Newton Needham Chamber of Commerce’s annual golf tournament. This year’s affair was attended by over 120 committed Metrowest business persons, and raised thousands of dollars for Family Access of Newton (www.familyaccess.org), a 100 year old organization that empowers and strengthens families and the community through programs that nurture child development, promote effective parenting skills and support working parents. We were proud to take part and contribute to this very worthy endeavor.

Dennis M. Lindgren Leads MCLE Roundtable on Practicing with Professionalism for New Lawyers

Thursday, June 02, 2016

On May 16, 2016, Pierce & Mandell shareholder Dennis M. Lindgren led a lunchtime roundtable discussion for over 100 newly admitted lawyers in a program sponsored by Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education (MCLE).  Pursuant to Supreme Judicial Court Rule 3:16, newly admitted lawyers in Massachusetts must take a one-day professionalism course within 18 months of admission.  Throughout the day, new lawyers attended seminars and training on a variety of topics including ethics, court practice, managing a law practice and client funds, and successful attorney-client relationships.  During the lunch session, Lindgren and four other experienced attorneys (in both criminal and civil practice), spoke for about an hour, fielding questions from attendees on all manner of practical legal issues like managing difficult clients, interacting with court personnel, and the advantages to developing a mentor relationship with a more senior attorney.  “This is the third roundtable I have participated in for MCLE’s Practicing with Professionalism course.  Each time the questions are different, but what is constant is how enjoyable it is to talk directly with the newly admitted attorneys and hopefully, in some small way, help them along the road to developing a successful legal career.”   For more information on MCLE’s Practicing with Professionalism course, please go to: http://www.mcle.org/main/practicingwithprofessionalism.

Are Chimpanzees Human Enough To Be Granted Some Human Rights by Karen Rabinovici

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

by Karen Rabinovici

Pierce & Mandell associate attorney Karen Rabinovici takes on the unusual topic in the July 2015 edition of Massachusetts Lawyers Journal in an article entitled  “Are Chimpanzees Human Enough To Be Granted Some Human Rights?” The article describes two chimpanzees – Hercules and Leo, both 8, - who have both been used in research at Stony Brook University in New York and are at the center of a court proceeding. The judge in the case has ordered Stony Brook to defend its detention of the chimps, whose freedom the Nonhuman Rights Project is advocating for, arguing that because chimpanzees have skills similar to human reasoning and self-determination, such captivity amounts to unlawful imprisonment.

“The Nonhuman Rights Project’s ultimate goal is to free the captive chimpanzees (along with others) and move them to a sanctuary where they can live as naturally as possible amongst other chimpanzees,” Rabinovici writes. “It has long been accepted that chimpanzees possess many characteristics originally believed to be exclusive to human beings. So the question is, do chimpanzees have enough human characteristics to be granted some human rights?”


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