This weekend, the Boston Globe published a thoughtful op-ed by Robert Ambrogi on efforts to reform the Massachusetts open meetings law. Ambrogi points out that the current open meetings law does not provide for civil or criminal penalties against government officials who violate the law. The current law enables a court to impose a penalty on an entire board or commission when it violates the law, but taxpayers -- not the individual wrongdoers -- end up paying.
Recently, Democratic Representative Antonio F.D. Cabral of New Bedford introduced a bill that would have given courts the power to impose a civil penalty of up to $500 on individual officials who violate the open meetings law, and Attorney General Martha Coakley also drafted a bill incorporating penalties for individual officials. Oddly, a compromise bill drafted in committee in mid-April eliminated individual penalties and even weakened current law by making it harder to impose a penalty on a full board or commission.
This change is disappointing and difficult to defend. Ambrogi writes:
Opponents of penalties argue that they would discourage people from serving in public office. That is like saying that speeding fines discourage people from driving. Fines do not punish honest government officials; they punish only those who break the law.
It's hard to argue with this kind of solid common sense. Let's hope that the advocacy of Ambrogi and the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association encourages our state legislators to correct this mistake and bring Massachusetts in line with the majority of other states, forty-two of which provide for individual civil or criminal penalties for open meetings violations.
For details on the current Massachusetts open meetings law, see our legal guide section, Open Meetings Laws in Massachusetts. For more on open meetings laws in other states, see Access to State and Local Government Meetings.