From Amherst To Boston, Government Openness Has Its Limits
Amherst Is Good At Transparency, Except When It Isn’t
This Sunday, March 12 marks the beginning of National Sunshine Week, launched by the American Society of News Editors in 2005 to promote open government. It is a time to celebrate transparency and reflect on where a little more illumination is needed.
Amherst Town Hall has shown a commitment to making government information available to the public. The town website, amherstma.gov, puts many other municipal websites to shame, providing a comprehensive calendar of public meetings, links to attend dozens of virtual board meetings each week, and pointers to video recordings of past meetings on YouTube. It is understandable why Brianna Sunryd, the town’s Director of Communications and Civic Innovation, was chosen by the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) to serve as sole judge for this year’s MMA Municipal Website awards.
Amherst residents can also appreciate the near-monthly scheduling of Cuppa’ Joe with Paul. These events, which were introduced by Town Manager Paul Bockelman, take place at local cafes or the Bangs Center, and offer the public an opportunity to meet town employees and speak directly with them and the town manager. A Cuppa’ Joe with invited guest Town Councilor Cathy Schoen, member of the Elementary School Building Committee will be held on March 24 at the Bangs Center at 8:30am.
Despite the town’s high marks for communication and meeting accessibility, there have been citizen complaints in recent months over Amherst falling short of its commitment to “Open Government to the Max.”
- In a follow up to the episode referred to as the Amherst Nine incident, closed-door meetings between town councilors and the police department drew the ire of members of the Community Safety Social Justice Committee
- Attempting to shed light on the closed-door meetings, Vira Douangmany Cage filed a Public Record Request and was assessed nearly $1000 for the work by the town as permitted by state law. She launched a GoFundMe campaign to cover the cost.
- Documents obtained by Cage revealed that Town Council President Lynn Griesemer learned at a private meeting with State Senator Jo Comerford that Massachusetts is on track to ban all products containing cancer-causing PFAS compounds. This information was not relayed to the Regional School Committee which has continued to push for installing an artificial turf athletic field, despite high profile reports of synthetic turf materials being found to contain PFAS.
- A Public Record Request turned up a report by space consultant Anna Popp to the Jones Library Trustees that recommended a low-cost plan for reconfiguring library space to achieve programming goals. The report was not made public before the Trustees and Town Council pushed forward a plan to renovate and expand the library building at a cost to taxpayers of $16 million.
- Last week a proposal by the Town Council’s Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee to limit the public comment period at the beginning of council meetings to 30 minutes, and an effort to push the measure through governance without discussion by placing it on the council’s consent agenda, drew heated criticism from both councilors and members of the public.
State Government Is Worse
If Amherst has sporadic transparency lapses, state government is downright opaque. Massachusetts is reportedly the only state in the country where the governor’s office, the judiciary, and the legislature all claim to be exempt from public records law. In 1997 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court handed down a ruling that since the state’s public records law does not explicitly name the three branches of government, those branches are, effectively, exempt.
In recent weeks, several articles in the Boston Globe have highlighted the tension between advocates for government transparency reform and an old guard that aims to keep government records private.
Governor Maura Healey has come under fire for reneging on a campaign pledge not to claim an exemption from Massachusetts public records law. Last month she denied Boston Globe requests to release call logs and emails, and provided calendar entries that were heavily redacted.
Newly elected State Auditor and former state senator Diana DiZoglio has made the politically perilous announcement that she intends to audit the Massachusetts Legislature in an effort to “expand transparency and accountability.”
Erin Leahy, executive director of the advocacy group Act on Mass, said, “We urge the Auditor to consider this worrisome anti-democratic trend during the course of the audit.”
In what might be viewed as a curb on sunshine, the state senate last month rejected a joint rules amendment that would allow opponents of a bill to issue a minority report on why they oppose a bill being reported out of a committee.
Readers interested in efforts to expand transparency in state government can learn more from the Massachusetts ACLU, the New England First Amendment Coalition, and from activist Andrew Quemere’s newsletter The Mass Dump.