Citizens petition to increase committees’ transparency

by beth on March 6, 2015

Advisory Committee member John Butler has long been an adovocate of transparency in town government. This spring, he’s bringing the cause to Town Meeting voters.

Acting as an individual, Butler submitted a Town Meeting article via citizen’s petition. The measure would require all town committees going forward to “promptly” post communications and materials for public access. (Scroll down for full text.)

The intent is to cover any communications covered by Open Meeting Laws and subject to public records requests. It is not meant to include confidential communications exempted from the laws.

Butler raised the issue, among others, at an Advisory Committee meeting in September. Since then he has circulated drafts and revised it based on feedback.

On Tuesday, he brought his the article to the Board of Selectmen for their input. The petitioner told selectmen that his motivation is to improve resident’s confidence in government.

Butler repeatedly emphasized that he’d never seen accusations of “nefarious” behavior and hidden communications to be founded*. But he said that greater transparency would help avoid accusations.

While it’s too late to change the language, Butler told the board he might be willing to propose amendments on Town Meeting floor.

Based on their comments, he now appears to have some thinking to do. Of the four attending selectmen, three were in favor of the concept, but concerned about details and execution. 

One of the biggest concerns, raised by Selectman John Rooney, was how to monitor which communications are public versus confidential.

Planning Board member Phil Jenks, who also supported the concept, was concerned about the feasibility of sharing all public documents online. Jenks explained that some materials provided to the Planning Board are essentially books of documents. Others include massive plans.

Butler posed that there could be an amendment to state that any documents that would cost above a certain amount to post would instead be only noted online so people are aware of their existance. But he also suggested the Planning Board consider if its reasonable to require applicants to provide electronic versions of materials.

Other questions raised included how to differentiate personal versus public emails, how to make the communications “indexable”, administration cost, and storage space.

Selectman Paul Cimino said that simply “living under this regime” would dispell resident’s suspicion. He suggested that the personal/public issue could be resolved by assigning town email addresses to committee members. And he assured colleagues storage space would cost “pennies”.

Selectman Bonnie Phaneuf agreed with Rooney and Cimino’s statements and questions. But Chair Bill Boland expressed a minority opinion that the current method for public record requests is sufficient.

The chair pointed to Butler’s own words that there hasn’t been a real problem. Boland said the article is overkill and unnecessary. He imagined:

a lot of work for very few people who are going to look at all the town’s email messages to see if they can say, “Aha!”

Butler rebutted that it is overkill most of the time,

But the times that we have had problems are sometimes spectacular and unnecessary.

The article petitioner said those flare ups are what stick in people’s minds. He furthered that committee members felt unfairly tarred by accusations, making it harder to recruit volunteers.

In the end, it’s possible that state law will be a roadblock. Rooney referred to an opinion from Town Counsel that the article may be in conflict with state Open Meeting Laws. He wondered if a policy voted on by the BOS was a better route.

Butler responded that BOS rulings wouldn’t cover the School Committee, which he wants to include under the article.

He told the board that he is waiting for feedback from the Attorney General’s office. But he explained that he doesn’t expect a problem. The measure wouldn’t prohibit something required by law or require something prohibited by law. And the practice is one that the Advisory Committee has been using for years.

Butler furthered that he had no problem with passing the measure then sending it to the state for a final say.

The petitioner couldn’t answer if any other towns have done this. He also couldn’t estimate the cost, though he envisioned it as minimal since the Advisory Committee and Main Street Design Working Group currently use free websites. He did admit that he wasn’t sure if those were indexed for searches. (Editor’s Note: The answer appears to be no. I couldn’t find any way to search the shutterfly site for Advisory.)

Here is the article text as submitted:

A Bylaw to Make Certain Public Information Available to the Public Online, as follows

“To see if the Town of Southborough will vote to enact a bylaw the text of which is substantially as follows ‘All public information, defined as information that is non‑exempt under the Massachusetts Public Records Law or is public pursuant to the Massachusetts Open Meeting law, that is sent in written form to, from, or between, members of Town Committees or Boards shall be promptly made available to the public via the Internet, by creating an electronic online copy or similar means.  It shall be available in such manner as to permit indexing by, and public searching via, Internet search providers and any other means convenient to the public as the Town may choose to provide.  Such online information may be deleted not sooner than three years after the original information has been deleted or destroyed.  “Promptly” as used in this bylaw shall mean not later than the amount of time after which such information would be otherwise copied for backup purposes, or 7 days, whichever is less.  The requirements of this bylaw shall be effective July 1, 2016 and are subject to appropriation by Town Meeting.’  and, to see if the Town will appropriate a sum of money for the purpose of planning and commencing implementation of systems for automated compliance with this bylaw, or do or act anything in relation thereto.”

*[Editor’s Note: Butler has accused the Planning Board of meeting law violations in the past. But I haven’t found any accusations by him that boards were intentionally deceiving the public.]

1 Al Hamilton March 6, 2015 at 3:22 PM

I am one of the signers of Mr. Butler’s petition. The Advisory committee has been doing this for years. It’s website is a repository of a wealth of information about what we spend our tax dollars on and the operations of various departments.

This should not be expensive to do and will be a breath of fresh air. I think the most startling thing that will come out of this is that most town operations are “mundane” and that most of our employees and volunteers want to do a good job.

Beyond all of this, the information belongs to us. We paid for it and it should be available in a 21st century format.

As for private communications, that is what gmail is for.

I wholeheartedly support this endeavor.

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