Town counsel: Select Board did not violate open meeting law with anonymous comments

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Responding to a complaint filed by a Hopkinton resident with the state Attorney General’s Office regarding anonymous public comment during the Aug. 18 Select Board meeting, town counsel Ray Miyares told the board at Tuesday’s meeting there was no violation.

The board had allowed two speakers and two letter-writers to deliver anonymous criticism of Planning Board member Muriel Kramer for her work with the Massachusetts Bail Fund. Only the critics’ first names were revealed. Normally speakers provide their full name and address.

Resident Darlene Hayes filed the complaint, writing, “To see it encouraged by [Select Board chair Brendan Tedstone] to break protocol is unethical, unfair and unwarranted based on so-called unsubstantiated fears.”

Tedstone responded by noting he has the authority to determine who can speak, and there is nothing in the law indicating individuals must identify themselves.

“I hope I can speak for the whole board when I say that we believe an open and transparent government is essential to the democratic process and that we fully commit to complying with the open meeting law,” Tedstone said, reading from a prepared statement. “That being said, I do not find that the open meeting law requires speakers at public meetings to be identified by names and addresses. … All I find is a provision stating that no person shall address a meeting of a public body without permission of the chair, and all persons shall, at the request of the chair, be silent.

“Furthermore, to the extent that the board may have an informal policy that individuals identify themselves prior to speaking is simply a board policy and not a requirement of the open meeting law.”

Miyares backed up Tedstone’s comment, adding: “That provision therefore gives you as the chair the authority to determine who may speak or otherwise participate at the meeting. There is no requirement in the open meeting law that an individual provide a name and address before speaking at a meeting. Many boards have that as a policy. In the case of this board it appears to be an informal policy — that is, it’s not written down as part of the [Select Board’s] rules and regulations. But even it it were, it would certainly be within the discretion of the board to deviate from that policy if it so chose.

“So, whether or not you agree with what the board intended to do, it is not really the issue. The issue is just, is this a violation of the open meeting law.”

Board members Mary Jo LaFreniere and Amy Ritterbusch said while they agree the law was not violated, they do not agree with the departure from how public comment traditionally has been handled.

“[The commenters] called for a town official’s resignation from a board, and they named the person,” LaFreniere said. “That person should have had the letters beforehand — and I didn’t even have them — and they should have been notified and allowed [to speak] at the meeting. … These letters came in very late in the day [of the meeting]. We used to have it that they had to be in by noontime on Friday to be at the next [Select Board] meeting; that wasn’t done. There were just other things that were not done that this board has done constantly as we went along. …

“The whole thing wasn’t quite done right. And I’m not saying it was anybody’s fault. It’s just that these things came in so late, and we all should have had a chance to [look over] them. It should have been put off to the next meeting once they came in, and not immediately that day.”

Added Ritterbusch: “Our policy right now says comments have to be received in writing by Friday at noon before the meeting, and that didn’t happen, these came in very late, so we’re not exactly following our procedure or past practice. So I do think we need to draft a better policy that we can all agree on going forward.

“The other thing is I think we got some emails this week that said specifically they were for public comment but they were not read aloud today either. So I think we’re having kind of a wishy-washy policy that people are not understanding, members of the public, they don’t know when their letters are going to be read or not.”

During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting, resident Amy Groves spoke in favor of establishing a clear policy to require commenters to fully identify themselves.

“Recently people have been allowed to use a Select Board meeting to publicly attack a member of our community under the cloak of anonymity lest they themselves be publicly attacked,” Groves said. “This logic is odd, and the fact that anonymity was allowed is disturbing to me. This is surely the slipperiest of all slopes and it should not become precedent. …

“When people state their name and address, they’re saying, ‘I’m proud of what I’m saying and I will stand behind it. I will stake my reputation on it.’ Reputation is what makes people think carefully about what they’re going to say, and concern for our reputation elevates the public discourse for the good of our community.”

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