Pink & Purple Panacea

A guide to how the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law influences public meetings.

I am writing in response to Bob Sprague’s request for comment on the role of public comment periods at public meetings, and if they should be open at every meeting. This question requires a discussion that goes beyond a simple yes or no, because of the complications of state laws surrounding open meetings and public records.
Let’s begin with the ground rules for meetings of municipal boards and commissions in Massachusetts.

While the state legislature exempts itself from all provisions of the Open Meeting Law, every board and commission, from city councils, select boards, school committees, down to the most obscure committees in the smallest towns, must comply with this law. Attorney General Maura Healey, who has primary responsibility for enforcing the Open Meeting Law, provides a guide to the Open Meeting Law. Here are some key points from her guide, relevant to this discussion:

Let’s translate some of the ground rules into day-to-day reality.

I like my colleagues on the school committee. They are wicked smart and fun to talk to. However, my six colleagues are the only people on earth with whom I am prohibited from discussing anything that might come under our jurisdiction unless we are at a properly posted public meeting. I can talk freely to parents, teachers, the superintendent, my cat, and my good friend on the Somerville School Committee, but the public must be able to observe these discussions between members of the same committee.

Meeting time is precious because the school committee can only discuss and deliberate at a public meeting. We have seven school committee members because we bring different perspectives, and we learn from each other. We learn from listening to each other and asking questions. We often come to consensus, but not without multiple, thoughtful discussions. This why we need to manage our meetings, and our workload, to provide sufficient time for committee members to deliberate and to interact with each other.

The Arlington School Committee has a set of policies pertaining to the operation of the committee and the structure of meeting agendas. We provide for up to 20 minutes of public comment, with speakers limited to three minutes, at regular meetings of the committee. We also refrain from commenting and responding to speakers at the meeting, but we will refer topics brought forward by the public to subcommittee, to the administration for action, or to be placed on a future agenda.

While our regular meetings are very formal, our subcommittee meetings are an informal opportunity for anyone in the room to participate in a discussion. Generally, we sit around a table and allow anyone in the room to participate in the discussion. The formal vote at a subcommittee meeting is limited to members of the subcommittee, usually three members, but votes are merely recommendations that will be forwarded to the school committee for action at a formal meeting.

Which brings us back to the public comment portion of our formal meeting. As the quality of ACMi broadcasts improved, along with the increased use of social media, it is now easier to sense the pulse of the community, or Arlington Public Schools families, by following the conversations on social media. People who want to get the attention of the school committee can email individual members, the committee chair, or the administrative secretary. A letter or email in the meeting packet, which is finalized 48 hours before each meeting, is the most efficient way to get an issue resolved or to place a topic on the agenda for a future meeting. School committee members in Arlington, when we aren’t in the middle of a pandemic, are also happy to meet with folks over coffee, and our phone numbers are all published on the district website. We’re an accessible bunch. As a result, public comment at school committee meetings has declined over the years, and while we have an attentive audience on ACMi, we often work in a room with lots of empty chairs.

Public comment is an inefficient way to get the school committee to take action. The law requiring agenda items to be posted 48 hours in advance gives the committee, and the public, warning about a topic that might be decided at the meeting. With limited exceptions, we cannot wander off to make a decision that is not on the agenda. This “no surprise rule,” promotes open government.

I will illustrate the reasons why this is important with an absurd example. A plethora of people populate our public comment period requesting permission to paint the Ottoson Middle School purple with pink accents. People describe this as a tribute to some worthy cause, promising it would be done quickly and at no cost to the town. After two hours of pink and purple presentations, the committee votes to approve the petition. Before anyone notices what happened at Thursday night’s meeting, a populous platoon of pink and purple painters show up at dawn on Saturday morning and we have a neon purple school with bold pink accents before noon.

Before the sun sets on the pink and purple ziggurat, the whole town is driving up and down Massachusetts Avenue, gawking at the pink and purple problem on the hill. Acton Street is clogged with angry neighbors, soon to be joined by protesters from around town (including one singing sappy protest songs in a Barney the Dinosaur costume) and a news crew from Channel 7. How did this happen? The school committee voted for this on Thursday night!

Who knew?
Under our current rules, the school committee doesn’t respond to the pink and purple pitch of the plethora of presenters at public comment. The pink and purple presentation is ended after 20 minutes, and the committee returns to the publicly posted agenda items. The committee’s response is to ask the superintendent to study the matter, or to forward the idea to a subcommittee. A pink and purple decision can’t be made until the subsequent meeting, where an agenda item for the pink and purple panacea appears on the agenda. This allows the pink and purple plan to percolate through the town, and committee members get to make an informed decision after receiving feedback from the entire community. Pink and purple pandemonium averted.

Public comment is a largely unused part of the agenda for every regular school committee meeting. We do not require it on the agenda of a special meeting of the committee, though on-topic comments are at the discretion of the chair. What is a special meeting? It could be a quick meeting that allows us to consider an unusual item that can’t wait for the next regular meeting of the committee. It gives us the opportunity to post the limited agenda 48 hours in advance, quickly convene to deliberate and vote, and adjourn. This is what the Select Board did when they held a special meeting to choose either June 6 or June 13 for the postponed town election.

We need the flexibility to hold special meetings, as we are not legally allowed to make a decision by polling members in email, or any other attempt to build consent or approval outside of public view. It is reasonable to open a special meeting to public comment on the agenda items, but it is also reasonable to wait for a regular meeting to open the floor to public comments that don’t directly relate to the specific items on the agenda. It is even more reasonable as social media, email, and are all more efficient platforms for informing the public or gaining the attention of the school committee.

Again, we must remember that public comments at a public meeting, unrelated to a specific agenda item, cannot be brought into the deliberations or decisions of the board receiving the remarks. Democracy is best served when agenda items are made available to all before the meeting, so that all who have an opinion can think about the issues and present arguments on a level playing field. Democracy is best served when public officials have the opportunity to read supporting documentation and think about the issues before them, and all members of the community have the opportunity to weigh in before a decision is made.

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Ottoson Middle
Ottoson Middle School, Arlington MA.