WVN #330: Supreme Court says School Committee violated Open Meeting Law
- Dear Wayland Voter,
The state's highest court has ruled that the Wayland School Committee violated the Open Meeting law while deliberating an annual evaluation of Superintendent Gary Burton.
The Supreme Judicial Court decision released on Dec. 31, 2009 came more than five years after those deliberations.
The School Committee was declared in violation of the law in an unrelated meeting, also in 2004. And Wayland's Board of Selectmen is the subject of a current Open Meeting Law complaint filed after U.S. Rep Niki Tsongas toured the proposed Town Center site with quorums of the selectmen and School Committee present but few other officials and no members of the general public.
The Supreme Judicial Court reversed a Superior Court ruling upholding the School Committee.
The Open Meeting Law requires that the public's business be done in public except for certain exceptions, such as discussing union contract negotiations or the moral character and mental health of employees.
The court found that the law was violated when members of the School Committee shared private emails commenting on Burton's performance and discussed the evaluation in executive (closed) sessions.
Professional competence "must be deliberated in open session," the court ruled. Once public deliberations are concluded, it said, draft or final evaluations may be withheld under exemptions granted in public records law. Evaluations go into Burton's personnel file.
The case began when the Wayland Town Crier filed a complaint with the district attorney in May 2005. Superior Court took up the case in December 2006 and in July 2008 Judge Leila Kern ruled in favor of the Committee.
In overturning the lower court decision, the Supreme Court in effect rejected the Committee's argument for the priority of public records law, citing the doctrine of seeking harmony between statutes that bear on the same matter, such as open meetings and public records.
The School Committee's actions represented "an improper attempt to avoid a public discussion of the superintendent's professional competence in an open meeting," the court said. Thus the Committee "violated the letter and the spirit of the Open Meeting Law."
The School Committee improperly went into executive session on June 21 and 28, 2004, the court said, when it declared the purpose of the closed session to be collective bargaining. There was no evidence that Burton's contract and salary were discussed, the court wrote; minutes of the executive sessions, disclosed later, mention only professional evaluation.
In the course of litigation the Committee disclosed a number of documents, including the draft and final evaluations which the Supreme Court now says may be withheld. But the Committee refused to disclose emails written by two members then on the Committee, Lori Friellng and Heather Pineault. The Supreme Court ruled that all emails must be released.
Under its current policy the School Committee releases draft and final evaluations.
The current School Committee chairman, Louis Jurist, told WVN he would have no immediate comment on the Supreme Court decision because the Committee is likely to discuss it at a regular meeting on Jan. 4.
After the Superior Court decision in 2008 Jurist said the cost of defending the Committee was estimated at no more than $6,000.
Of the five members on the Committee in 2004, the only one still serving is Jeff Dieffenbach, who was then chairman.
-- Michael Short
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor