Planning Board discusses town Working Groups

Last week, I shared news on Working Groups (outside of public board meetings) the town planned to use for resolving difficult issues. A few commenters were ired by what they perceived to be a lack of open process. So I promised to look into it.

At last night’s Planning Board meeting, Paul Cimino expressed frustration over the comments. He and other board members sought to set the record straight.

They clarified that “Working Groups” aren’t a formal body and don’t have the authority to make decisions. Voting and public hearings would be handled by the appropriate boards.

The groups will facilitate discussion between all the boards, departments, and stakeholders effected by an issue. They explained that individual members of different boards are allowed to discuss town issues to solicit their perspectives.

Just as the Town Planner, Jennifer Burney, is allowed to have meetings with individual board members, she is allowed to bring members of different board together for a group discussion.

Burney has already started work on forming the groups. In the effort to work out an Open Space process, Burney began reaching out to the Open Space Preservation Commission, the Conservation Commission, the Sudbury Valley Trustees, and the Department of Public Works. She also wants to speak with the new Building Inspector and local developers. And that’s just to start.

OSPC member, Freddie Gillespie, voiced concern that Burney’s scope would be too wide. She worried that reaching out to all stakeholders would evolve into a long political process beyond the immediate need OSPC was seeking to resolve.

Burney explained that she wasn’t trying to get general feedback from everyone. She had specific questions related to the process and timing of each group’s role.

Planning Board Chair Don Morris was adament that Burney needs a chance to get a grip on the complicated process. He said to Gillespie, “It is urgent. But it is not an emergency.”

Board members did question the burden the new groups placed on Burney. She confirmed that it had already been very time consuming. Both Burney and the board agreed that as the Working Groups are formed, other members of the groups should take over some of the associated tasks.

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John Butler
8 years ago

In order for a Town official such as the Planner to call a meeting of citizens to discuss a public topic and have that group not be a Public Body subject to the requirements of the Open Meeting Law, the situation must pass both of these two tests of the law:

1. The public official must have sole responsibility for making the final decision and so could have made the final decision without creating the committee. (This is the heart of the so called “Connelly Decision”.)

2. Further, to quote the Attorney General web site: “However, where a public official creates a committee because they are required to do so by law, regulation or at the direction of a governing authority such as a City Council or Board of Selectmen, then the committee will likely be subject to the Open Meeting Law”

The problem with these working groups created by the Planner is that they pass neither test. The Planner doesn’t have authority to make the final decisions in these instances, in fact, Cimino says as much, (and it is obvious that, for example, Marijuana Bylaw must be decided by Town Meeting) and, secondly, the Planning Board, the Planner’s governing authority, directed that the Planner do this. As I read this, therefore, since it passes neither test both of which are required. Any “bringing together” of multiple citizens in this instance creates a public body under the law.

For further information see this AG site which discusses the topic: “Is a committee or board created by a public official subject to the Open Meeting Law?”

http://www.mass.gov/ago/government-resources/open-meeting-law/oml-faqs/oml-faq-public-bodies.html

The fact that the “working groups” will bring recommendations to standing committees such as the Planning Board is not only irrelevant to the question of whether they are a Public Body, far from being an exclusion, it is in fact the definition a public body as a Subcommittee under the law.

Why they are frustrated with the comments here? I don’t know. I don’t make up the web site of the Attorney General on this topic. I am weary of confronting the Planning Board with the apparent requirements of the Open Meeting Law.

Lastly, as Al Hamilton pointed out the last time this flared up, why are they so intent on avoiding public meetings? They just aren’t that hard. There is no point to avoiding them. Doing so creates an entirely unjustified appearance of skulduggery that gets citizen speculation flying high and, as noted above, probably, it is against the law.

Nora England
8 years ago

OSPC member, Freddie Gillespie, I would like to voice another concern. I want also to pay support and admiration to your proper stand. The planning board and the town planner most likely will change the subdivision plans of the Barn Hollow. This is to exclude the encroachment area from the Open Space on plans. The planning board may also change the Open Space covenant of barn hollow to exclude such encroachments.
The residents will get deeds from developer. The developer will give equal area in another location to the town.
I hope I am not right because the above plan is not a compromise but it is a conspiracy.

just wondering
8 years ago
Reply to  Nora England

Change the subdivision plans of Barn Hollow?

Exclude the encroachment area from the Open Space on plans?

Change the Open Space covenant to exclude such encroachments?

Seriously. How can this be possible?

Why would the town put itself between the developer and the homeowners?

Don’t we have enough challenges to deal with?

Is there not a more appropriate use of our staff’s time and tax dollars?

Just Curious
8 years ago
Reply to  Nora England

Nora,

I do not have a crystal ball and I doubt that you do. When you post a comment such as ” The planning board and the town planner most likely will change the subdivision plans of the Barn Hollow.”, I think all you are doing is throwing gasoline on a fire. It is just not a helpful post.

While I understand and respect the need for the regulations posted by John Butler, I wonder if the atmosphere surrounding the Planning Board, Open Space, etc, has become so poisoned that just meeting for a cup of coffee is what is needed.

Sometimes cooler heads and a change of location are what’s needed to jump start a relationship and get productive working relationships.

Mark Ford
8 years ago
Reply to  Just Curious

I believe that meeting for a cup of coffee violates the “open meeting” laws.
;-)

Nora England
8 years ago
Reply to  Just Curious

Just Curious
Thank you for your comment about my post. My post represents the nightmare scenario that you and I hope it will never happen. Open discussion is a positive phenomenon and it is unfair to characterize it as throwing the gasoline on fire.
Actually, attempting to do the steps as nicely listed by “Just Wondering” is a waste of our staff’s time, tax dollars, and our respect for Law and Order.

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