Friday, March 15, 2013
State should be more open, say Easton and state officials

Easton — Local officials can be sticklers about government transparency — and why not?

It’s the law.

Town boards must adhere to the state’s strict open meeting laws. They are required to post notices of all public sessions. They may meet behind closed doors only for very specific reasons.

They must take and post minutes of those meetings.

The town of Easton has gone even farther in its efforts to obey both the letter and the spirit of the statute. It maintains an active website, uses social media and takes a tough stance on scofflaws.

But the same legislators that enacted the open meetings laws are exempt from the laws themselves.

They can deliberate and vote to advance bills in secret; meet behind closed doors in caucuses; and call public hearings on short notice.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Easton Town Clerk Jeremy Gillis says. “‘Do as I say, not do as I don’t is not a good governing strategy.”

A bill filed by state Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, would now force legislators to act more like their local counterparts.

The bill would set up a special commission of state representatives and senators to examine the practicability of applying the provisions of the public records and open meeting laws to the Legislature.

The commission would review current practices on making available to the public everything from records of committee votes to scheduling and notices of legislative hearings and sessions.

State Sen. Brian Joyce, D-Milton, thinks some requirements of public records and open meeting laws should apply to state government.

But, for the most part, he says, the current state transparency laws work, pointing to important updates to transparency laws over the last several years.

“Most recently, we passed legislation updating antiquated finance laws and implementing data-driven performance measurement requirements for all government agencies and programs to improve efficiency, transparency and accountability. This included measures like; publicly available reports evaluating the effectiveness of state agencies and programs, electronic accounting and reporting systems, improved reporting of spending on capital projects and independent debt affordability studies available to the public, among others,” he said.

“Prior to that, we severely increased the penalties for official malfeasance and passed comprehensive ethics and campaign finance reforms.”

Joyce says state legislators should be able to meet in private caucuses even with a majority present.

“We are charged by the taxpayers to deliberate on important ideas and the best uses of their hard-earned tax dollars. This responsibility demands we do our due diligence and the vetting of ideas and issues that could potentially affect millions of people,” he said.

He said elected officials must take very public stances on very divisive and emotionally charged issues.

“My ideas and stances are not etched in stone and set in me from birth, but are the evolution of speaking with constituents who are passionate about the issues and my colleagues. Just as I would never disclose what I talk to individual constituents about, I think the members need time to discuss and debate ideas and issues amongst ourselves in private before the debate is taken to the public arena on the Senate floor,” he said.

While state lawmakers must keep working to make Massachusetts more open and accountable to taxpayers, Joyce said he is proud of the state’s openness when compared to other areas of the country.

“Last year Massachusetts was ranked fourth in the nation by MASSPIRG on its State Spending Transparency Report Card,” he said.

Easton Town Administrator David Colton agrees the state legislature is more open than it was in the past but says there’s always room for improvement.

He also agrees there is a role for some secrecy in legislative deliberations.

“After all, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was held in secret and many scholars believe that if it
were public the result would have been very different and not in a good way!” he said.