Sunday, February 12, 2006
POLITICS/FIRSTAMENDMENT: Do blog postings violate open-meeting law?
A city councilor in North Adams, Mass. (pop. 14,167), is concerned that the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, which forbids unofficial meetings of public-board quorums or serial phone conversations about official topics, may be applicable to blog postings and appearances on public-access TV channels. He is seeking an opinion from the Massachusetts attorney general. The issue has also come up in the larger eastern Massachusetts city of Lowell. And the Massachusetts Open Government Project is tracking the issue.
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Article Last Updated: 2/11/2006 03:14 AM
Billings: Do blogs, TV jibe with meeting law?
By Jennifer Huberdeau
The North Adams Transcript
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. -- Concerns about how the state's open meeting law applies to such things as posting on Web logs and multiple councilors appearing on cable access programs has prompted City Councilor Clark H. Billings to present a letter to the council asking for the city solicitor's opinion. Council petition.
"I brought this up at the last meeting under councilor's concerns," Billings said. "I heard conflicting opinions at the Massachusetts Municipal Association conference in January. I want to get this in the pipeline and find out about it before anyone gets in trouble."
Billings, who has his own cable access program, "Think About It," on Northern Berkshire Community Television, isn't worried about his show, but he thinks a group of councilors answering call-in questions on a show involving Councilors Robert R. Moulton Jr. and Ronald A. Boucher might have problems.
"My show doesn't have a quorum. I don't have a call-in (format). But I have appeared on Bob and Ron's show with other councilors. If they have someone on the show, who is on a subcommittee with them, they might have a quorum. That could cause problems," he said. Billings is also worried about posts made to Web logs. Both he and Councilor Christopher J. Tremblay make posts to local blogs.
"I understand the aspect of telephone calls and e-mail communications having the potential to be illegal because they are private. I'm questioning posts to Web logs because they are open to the public," he said.
According to the state's open meeting law, "Telephone meetings -- discussion by telephone among members of a governmental body on an issue of public business within the jurisdiction of the body" -- are a violation of the law. This is true even where telephone conversations fall in a serial fashion."By definition serial fashion is when one call takes place after another, and a decision is eventually reached. The same applies to e-mail communications.
However, there has yet to be a ruling on public forums such as television shows and Web logs."I got two different opinions at the conference," Billings said. "I think there is potential for this to be interpreted a half dozen ways."Billings also is questioning how the law applies to such public forums as candidate nights. "They are public, but their not posted," he said. "They also have the potential to have a quorum of sitting councilors present. I can't think of an election year when five councilors aren't running for re-election. They also have the potential for questions to be asked about items before the council. Councilors hear what others are thinking and can make decisions based on each others responses."
However, Billings doesn't expect the city solicitor to be able to answer his opinion."I know Chris Tremblay contacted the district attorney's office about this," he said. The answer was that the office had not had any direction on the matters, he said."I'm hoping to kick this up to the district attorney, then kick it up to the attorney general," Billings said. "I just want an opinion. I don't like surprises."
Billings said he worries a councilor could be blind-sided by a ruling, which could potentially carry a fine of $1,000 if proposed legislation to hold government officials more accountable should pass."It's the stupidest proposal I've seen," Billings said.
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