Bringing the Legislature out into the open

Mandi Jo Hanneke

Transparency, openness, and accountability are three hallmarks of representative democracy. The proposed Council-Manager structure does better on these three matters than our current Representative Town Meeting.

One of the League of Women Voters’ Principles of Good Government is that “adherence to open meeting law must be strictly maintained.” The proposed charter observes this principle. Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting does not.

The Town Council will be subject to open meeting laws and conflict of interest laws, requiring councilors to deliberate and discuss the issues out in the open and to disclose conflicts when they arise. This means that Councilors will not be able to get together (even just a minority of them) and discuss the pros and cons of matters that will be coming up for a vote at a Council meeting.

And, in Council meetings, a Councilor will have to disclose any potential conflicts, including if that Councilor stands to benefit or be harmed financially by a council action.

These two principles are some of the hallmarks of an open and accountable government.

Yet, surprisingly, Representative Town Meeting isn’t subject to either open meeting or conflict of interest laws. And when asked, Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting members refused to voluntarily subject itself to these rules. They dismissed the matter on June 6, 2016, due to concerns that too many members would have to recuse themselves from votes such as the budget (because they pay taxes).

The result is that the body making decisions can hide from the public without violating the law. In fact, there are private listservs (three that I know of) that include large numbers of Representative Town Meeting members that discuss, in private, their voting plans prior to arriving at Town Meeting.

Furthermore, there have been many times when Representative Town Meeting members advocate to their fellow representatives a position on the floor of Town Meeting that would benefit them personally, all the while failing to disclose their potential benefit from the vote because it’s not required now.

This is not how government should work.

The proposed charter corrects these flaws in the current system and brings deliberations back out into the open, all while requiring the people making the decisions to be forthright about any potential benefit or harm they may face by the vote. It’s how government should be.

Comments 7

  1. Would the new representative town meeting advisory committee be subject to conflict of interest laws or open meeting laws? http://www.gazettenet.com/Town-Meeting-Advisory-Committee-seeks-members-in-Amherst-16066880
    (In all transparency, it seems totally circuitous to me to form a body like this – might as well have an open and transparent smaller Town Council that is actually accountable to their constituents. But if the charter doesn’t pass on March 27th, which is entirely possible because change is hard and there are a number of stakeholders who enjoy the privilege of wielding power without having to answer to anyone, I’d like to know what the rules of the playing field are when it comes to how representative town meeting members make decisions that affect all of us.)

    1. I believe that the answer to your question is NO, that all subcommittees of Town Meeting are also not subject to OML under Massachusetts state law. I’m not sure that there is a need for Open Meeting Law in a committee tasked objectively to study issues and report to Town Meeting on the pros and cons. And, let’s be careful here: the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law has its pluses and minuses in terms of the creation of policy. It is not holy writ. And there has been a heretofore good reason to keep Massachusetts town meetings out of it.

      Amherst Town Meeting members could have been respectful of the spirit of our OML by keeping the large capacity private chat rooms down to a minimum, and by maintaining the appearance of openness and spontaneous debate in individual sessions. If residents eager to speak to the body get the impression that “the fix is in” as on January 31, 2017, that’s a bad look, one that undermines the public’s trust, an arrogantly self-inflicted wound.

  2. Town Meetings and their committees are exempt from Massachusetts Open Meeting laws, as the Charter Commissioner writing this blog well know. All of the committees of Amherst Town Meeting voluntarily follow Open Meeting law, as may be less well known.

    The purpose of Open Meeting law is to insure that government decisions are made in the open, in posted meetings with posted agendas so everyone can see how decisions are made. And that deals are not struck behind closed doors.

    Massachusetts law deliberately exempts Town Meetings and the House of Representatives and Senate because these legislative bodies have large numbers of members, and they debate and vote in open public meetings, often televised. It’s hard to have backroom deal-making when 121 Town Meeting members have to agree to vote a certain way. No one Town Meeting member has much power–1/240th of a vote, unlike the 20% voting power of a Select Board member (1 of 5). Smaller government decision-making bodies, like a 5 member Select Board, are different, since each member of the Select Board has so much more power.

    Another way of looking at this is to think of how craazy it would be if every Town Meeting member started posting every meeting, 48 hours in advance with an agenda, every time they talked to a member about a Warrant article. The town calendar would be overridden by calendar items. Also, you want Town Meeting members to be talking to each other and neighbors, in small groups or on a listserv, about issues facing our town. (The listserv also is open for members of the public to view).

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      It’s not just Open Meeting Law that this post it about. It’s also about Conflict of Interest law. As for Open Meeting Law, you gloss over the private listservs that do exist that cannot be read by members of the public and where decisions on how to vote are being made. This is a problem.

      You’re argument that a person would have to post a meeting with agenda when speaking with just 1 other TM member; it’s wrong and represents a complete misunderstanding of the Open Meeting Law requirements.

      Now let’s talk about conflict of interest law. You seem to imply by saying these laws shouldn’t be applicable to Town Meeting Members that 1 member does not have the power when speaking at Town Meeting to sway the other members. If that’s the case, then I believe you are admitting that a town meeting body is not a deliberative body; if it were, then one member would have the ability to sway the others in the room. But no matter what, whether truly deliberative or just a speech making body, the members of the body have the right to know when someone speaking has a direct interest in the matter. For example, when town meeting was discussing the addition of money for the library paraprofessional in the budget, if one of the paraprofessionals whose job was on the line was a town meeting member, that person could have asked to be recognized, been recognized, then spoke in favor of adding the money, all without ever disclosing that it was his/her job on the line that he/she was speaking in favor of keeping. I’ve never said that person shouldn’t be able to speak. What I argue is that he/she should have to disclose to the other members of the body the personal interest he/she has in the matter at hand. Right now, he/she doesn’t have to do that and I believe that is a huge problem.

  3. We don’t have to completely change our proven Town Government to add a conflict of interest provision to Town Meeting–if this is needed. (I’d personally like evidence first that this is a problem.) The Town of Brookline has a provision in their bylaws about having Town Meeting members identify their financial conflict of interest and recommending that they do not vote. So something similar can be be done here. The Town Meeting Coordinating Committee has a subcommittee that is looking at improvements to strengthten Town Meeting. We are putting together our list of tasks for the coming months and conflict of interest issues are one of the things on our list.In a year or so we’ve added an email system so residents can contact most Town Meeting members by precinct, among other easy improvements.

    People should understand that for hundreds of years — in hundreds of towns — Select Board -Town Meeting government have operated successfully with these exemptions. It’s hard to hold secret meetings and throw votes when your legislature consists of hundreds of neighbors and residents. I doubt there are more than a few members with financial conflicts on any Town Meeting article–and it’s hard to avoid less worrisome simple conflicts that comes with the territory of having local citizens lead their government.

    Again, it’s good to ask — What is the problem one is trying to fix? Give some actual examples and research solutions. There is a lot of speculation here with no documentation.

    Select Board-Town Meeting-Town Manager government has worked well in Amherst for hundreds of years.

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      Janet, if you read the blog post, you would know that Town Meeting rejected subjecting itself to Conflict of Interest rules in 2016. So your proposed solution, just have Town Meeting adopt it, was tried and rejected by Town Meeting.

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