No one is more zealous about insisting the public’s business be conducted publicly, openly and transparently than members of the Fourth Estate. But when taken to extremes even well-intentioned reforms can have unintended consequences.
Take, for example, the Citizen’s Input segment which precedes posted business at the start of every selectmen’s meeting. A long-standing tradition in Foxboro, this local custom allows ordinary townspeople a public soapbox to air their gripes or just speak their minds on the topics of the day. Originally conceived as a means of cutting through red tape and providing citizens direct access to the town’s preeminent policy-making and deliberative body, Citizen’s Input had the dual benefit of facilitating public dialog and, when necessary, keeping elected officials honest.
More recently, however, it has become a source of frustration — paradoxically — because of the determination of local leaders to comply with the state Open Meeting Law. Enacted in 1975 and most recently amended in September 2017, the so-called Sunshine Law seeks to promote public understanding of government by eliminating much of the secrecy that often surrounded deliberations and decisions upon which public policy is based.
According to Town Clerk Robert Cutler, amendments to the Open Meeting Law preclude public officials from discussing issues in open session unless they have been posted in advance as part of a formal meeting agenda. And because selectmen rarely know what topics might be raised during the spontaneous forum, board members have been advised to not say anything — an unsatisfying practice which, ironically, contradicts the presumptive goal of open government.
Although we can appreciate the rights of third parties to weigh in on issues raised in open session — and further understand that certain topics need to be addressed behind closed doors — we also doubt the state Legislature intended this provision to suppress public discourse, which is precisely what has happened here in Foxboro. Worse still, in their zeal to comply with the letter of the law selectmen have not only resisted engaging in discussion during Citizen’s Input, they also have failed to explain those reasons for giving citizens the silent treatment, leaving townspeople to draw their own conclusions.
Far from promoting transparency, this tone deaf lack of candor has had the opposite effect.
This unfortunate practice was revealed several weeks ago, when selectmen Mark Elfman and James DeVellis publicly conveyed the restrictions imposed during most Citizen’s Input encounters. DeVellis, in his final meeting before stepping down from the board, apologized to Patricia Stevens of Mechanic Street, who on numerous occasions in recent years has asked selectmen to address excessive traffic speeds in front of her home (and elsewhere in town), only to be dismissed with a courteous “thank you.”
Since then, town officials have taken an active interest in Stevens’ longstanding complaints. However, the dysfunctional practice has caught the eye of other observers as well — including town historian Jack Authelet, longtime editor of this newspaper and former Massachusetts “Sunshine” chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists.
In that role, Authelet has spent decades zealously promoting and defending the state Open Meeting Law. But this week he suggested that selectmen are doing themselves — and those townspeople seeking to establish a public dialog with their elected leaders — a disservice with their tight-lipped approach
“I think there have been some misconceptions about what selectmen can or can’t do,” Authelet said, not coincidentally, during Tuesday night’s Citizen’s Input segment. “The board should realize it has much greater latitude in how it responds” to such unscheduled inquiries by townspeople. Rather than sending away such petitioners empty handed, Authelet urged board members to let common sense dictate the boundaries of such conversations.
“I think we’d have a lot more satisfied people coming in under Citizen’s Input,” he concluded.
All of this might seem like small potatoes compared to some of the weighty issues facing local government. But sometimes the little things speak loudest about our values and priorities as a community. At the very least, selectmen and their appointed agents can do a better job of informing citizens how to move complaints through proper channels, thereby remaining faithful to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Open Meeting Law.