Commonwealth Rules Town of Framingham School Committee Did Not Violate Open Meeting Law

FRAMINGHAM – In 2017, former School Committee member Michelle Brosnahan filed a complaint that members on the 7-member Town of Framingham School Committee violated the state’s Open Meeting Law.

On April 4, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office ruled that the Town of Framingham School Committee and its members did not violate the Open Meeting Law.

“We find that the Committee did not violate the Open Meeting Law,” wrote Hanne Rush, Assistant Attorney General in the division of open government. “We now consider the complaint addressed by this determination to be resolved. This determination does not address any other complaints that may be pending with our office or the Committee.”

Former School Committee member Michelle Brosnahan filed an open meeting law violation complaint in November 2017.  Brosnahan did not win a seat on the new 9-member City of Framingham School Committee.

A letter was sent to School Committee member Michelle Brosnahan in December with the official response from the Framingham School Committee on the complaint.  It was the position of the Framingham School Committee that “no violation of the open meeting law occurred” at the October 16 meeting, according to the attorney for the Framingham School Committee. The then-Town of Framingham School Committee discussed the complaint in December. Brosnahan had 30 days to appeal the Framingham School Committee’s decision to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. She filed the appeal on December 26, 2017.

“In her complaint, Ms. Brosnahan alleges that, during its October 16 meeting, the Committee discussed and took action on a topic that was not listed on the notice. Additionally, Ms. Brosnahan alleges that four Committee members privately discussed the topic prior to the meeting. Following our review, we find that the Committee did not violate the Open Meeting Law,” wrote the Rush, speaking for the Attorney General’s office.

“In reaching a determination, we reviewed the original complaint, the Committee’s response to the complaint, and the complaint filed with our office requesting
further review. We also reviewed the notice, minutes and video-recording from the Committee’s October 16 meeting.3 Finally, in February and March we spoke individually by telephone with current Committee members Rich Finlay and Scott Wadland and former Committee members Heather Connolly, Jim Kelly, and the complainant,” wrote Rush.

 

“We find the facts as follows. At the time of the filing of this complaint, the Committee was a seven-member public body, thus four members constitute a quorum. 4
The Committee held a regularly-scheduled meeting on October I 6. Under the posted topic, “Bills and Payroll,” Mr. Finlay raised an issue with Committee member Beverly Hugo, who is the Committee’s designated warrant signer. Mr. Finlay challenged Ms. Hugo on her refusal to sign a warrant authorizing the release of funds for a golf tournament in support of the alpine ski team, which Mr. Finlay and Mr. Kelly helped to organize. This warrant was listed in the packet of warrants distributed to the Committee for its review that evening. Following a discussion, the Committee ultimately decided to postpone taking any action on the topic, including whether to remove Ms. Hugo as warrant signer, until a future meeting,” wrote Rush.

“Leading up to this meeting, school administrators had met with Ms. Hugo regarding her failure to sign the warrant. Ms. Connolly, who was the Committee chair at
the time, attended the meeting. Other than Ms. Connolly, who learned about the issue from the school’s business office, Mr. Kelly was the first Committee member to learn about the issue ahead of the October I 6 meeting, though there is some discrepancy about whether he had heard about it from Mr. Wadland (who recalled overhearing a conversation between Ms. Hugo and the school superintendent) or from Ms. Hugo’s husband,” wrote Rush.

“Nevertheless, Mr. Kelly submitted a public records request to the school district for emails relating to the issue. Upon reviewing the records, Mr. Kelly then called Mr. Finlay to inform him that he was the subject of some of the emails. Consequently, Mr. Finlay made a public records request to the school district for the same set of emails. On the morning of the October I 6 meeting, Mr. Finlay spoke with Mr. Wadland, informing him that he, too, was mentioned in the emails. Mr. Finlay forwarded the emails to Mr. Wadland. Mr. Finlay also spoke with Ms. Connolly to inform her that he would raise the issue during the meeting. Aside from Mr. Finlay and Ms. Connolly, the other Committee members did not anticipate the topic being raised during the meeting,” wrote Rush.

The Open Meeting Law requires that all meetings of a public body be properly noticed and open to members of the public, unless an executive session is convened.

The Law’s purpose is “to eliminate much of the secrecy surrounding deliberations and decisions on which public policy is based.”

A “meeting” is defined, in relevant part, as “a deliberation by a public body with respect to any matter within the body’s jurisdiction.”

The law defines “deliberation” as “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 complaint alleges that a quorum of the Committee communicated about the warrant issue outside of a meeting, evidenced by a packet of documents those Committee members had with them during the October 16 meeting. While it is a close question, we credit the Committee’s account that only three Committee members-Mr. Kelly, Mr. Finlay, and Mr. Wadland-discussed the warrant issue outside of a meeting. The fourth Committee member, Ms. Connolly, had a brief discussion with Mr. Finlay about raising the issue during the October 16 meeting, but did not otherwise discuss the substance of the emails with him (though, as Chair, she knew they existed and that Mr. Finlay and Mr. Kelly had requested copies of them). Additionally, Mr. Finlay was the only Committee member with the packet of emails with him at the meeting. Because less than a quorum discussed the warrant issue outside of a meeting, we decline to find a violation,” wrote Rush.

“The complaint also alleges that Mr. Finlay made a motion to remove Ms. Hugo as warrant signer under the topic, “Bills and Payroll,” even though the meeting notice did not indicate that the Committee would take a vote on this topic. We have said that it is reasonably foreseeable that a public body may take action and hold a vote following discussion of a topic listed on a meeting notice, even where the noticed topic does not indicate the possibility of a vote. See OML 2015-66; OML 2012-75. Accordingly, we find no violation for this omission. In any event, the chair was unaware that Mr. Finlay would raise the issue until the morning of the meeting. Thus, the Committee was permitted to proceed with its discussion of the topic as the chair did not anticipate this discussion at the time that the notice was posted at least 48 hours in advance of the meeting.6 See OML 2018-22; OML 2016-103. Although a public body may consider an unanticipated topic that was not listed in the meeting notice, however, our office strongly encourages public bodies to postpone discussion and action on unnoticed topics that are controversial or may be of particular interest to the public. See OML 2016-23; OML 2012-85,” wrote Rush.

In November 2017, Framingham School Committee member Beverly Hugo made a formal, public apology for her actions in regards to a controversy over a $100 check for a golf tournament that benefitted Framingham High School athletics.

After the apology, the Framingham School Committee voted 5-2 to not to hold a public hearing on December 12. The hearing would have decided if Hugo should be removed as an authorized warrant signer for the Framingham School Committee.

Framingham Source Editor Susan Petroni

Susan Petroni Framingham Source Editor Email: editor@FraminghamSource.com Phone: 508-315-7176

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