Editorial: Open Meeting Law redux for Greenfield School Committee

Published: 9/17/2020 8:24:49 AM

It’s back to school for area students, in whatever form that takes. And, we believe it’s time for the Greenfield School Committee to study up on the state’s Open Meeting Law — again.

On Saturday, Sept. 12 at 2 p.m. the School Committee held an emergency meeting according to the post on the city’s website: “Executive Session may be called — MGL c 30A, §21, To conduct strategy sessions in preparation for negotiations with nonunion personnel or to conduct collective bargaining sessions or contract negotiations with nonunion personnel.”

The Open Meeting Law requires public meetings to be posted 48 hours in advance unless there is an emergency, which in that case it can be posted in less time than that. That’s the route the committee decided to take for Saturday’s meeting, in which, as noted above, an executive session “may” be called.

Yes, the law permits a board to go into executive session if an open meeting may have a negative effect on the board’s bargaining or litigating position.

A member of Mayor Roxann Wedergartner’s staff told Recorder reporter Anita Fritz on Monday he believed Saturday’s meeting was called to discuss student registration issues and contracts for “attendance officers and the registrar.”

But aspects of this meeting raise questions.

The big news to emerge was Superintendent Jordana Harper’s official notification that she will not renew her contract at the end of the school year and will leave her post June 30. Harper submitted a letter to the committee, which she provided to the Greenfield Recorder on Monday. Chair Amy Proietti said the committee will not release any details until it has a chance to evaluate its options.

If Harper, who has held that position since 2014, were leaving suddenly that would indeed constitute an emergency. But giving nearly 10 months’ notice does not.

As Harper explained to Fritz in an email exchange Monday, she hoped that giving her notice at the start of the school year would give the committee enough time to begin a “complete and thorough search for the next superintendent” and allow for a smooth transition.

That news should have been delivered in an open meeting and not in executive session.

(Harper did bring up the news again at Monday’s School Committee meeting although the group did not discuss it. She also provided her letter to the Recorder.)

We also question why this executive session was not conducted at the scheduled meeting two days later on Monday or another weekday. Posting an emergency meeting for a Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. in less than 24 hours would make it unlikely that public would be expecting that would happen.

We prefer public meetings to be conducted during weekdays and not weekends.

Another point of contention is that the Saturday meeting was not open to the public when the School Committee convened, as required by the law. The city’s web page did not provide a link to the virtual meeting.

Proietti explained that the School Committee was to go immediately into executive session.

But according to the law, the start of any meeting in which a committee or board will go into executive session is open to the public. That’s when committee’s chair is supposed to announce the session’s purpose and for the members to vote whether to go into executive session. The chair must also announce whether the board will adjourn from the executive session or reconvene in open session before concluding the meeting.

The public did not have that opportunity without that link.

Yes, the pandemic and its accompanying safety rules make conducting public meetings challenging, but the letter of the law must be followed.

And as alluded above, this is not the first time the Greenfield School Committee has bent the rules. Last year, Greenfield resident Paul Jablon filed a formal complaint with the state Attorney General that committee members, specifically former superintendent Susan Hollins, were using email to discuss the school budget rather than in an open meeting.

Emailing is permitted but only in limited circumstances as long as it does not involve a majority of the group. That wasn’t happening.

The Attorney General ruled the School Committee violated the Open Meeting Law by using email to conduct a virtual meeting. And to its credit, the School Committee admitted its violation and agreed to take corrective action. Training was given.

But we believe the School Committee needs a refresher about the Open Meeting Law and how it applies to how executive sessions are conducted, especially at emergency meetings.

The Open Meeting Law was passed in 1975 to keep the public’s business public. We respect that purpose.

Greenfield Recorder

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Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906


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