Open Meeting Law changes eyed

From today’s MetroWest Daily News:

“Some reforms backed by newspaper advocates intended to thwart local and state boards from going behind closed doors to decide public matters may get a boost from lawmakers.

“The co-chairman of a legislative committee is pushing a bill to overhaul the state Open Meeting Law for the first time in three decades. The law was designed to make sure most meetings of governmental boards and committees are open to the public, with just a few specific exemptions.”

Round-up of Sunshine Week coverage

Today marks the start of Sunshine Week and several Massachusetts newspapers marked the day with reporting and opinion:

Schools’ secret session notes under wraps

From the Sentinel & Enterprise:

Schools’ Secret Session Notes Under Wraps

“By Kyle Alspach

“FITCHBURG — The School Committee met in secret sessions eight times in 2005, but has yet to release any records of those meetings to the public.

“The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law allows public boards to meet privately about some issues.

“But the records may only remain secret as long as ‘publication may defeat the lawful purposes’ of the session, according to the law.”

[Read more.]

Editorial: Open meeting violation is everyone’s fault

From today’s Medfield Press:

“Perhaps the School Committee didn’t realize they were not following the state’s Open Meeting Law, but any policeman will tell you: Ignorance of the law is no defense.

“Executive sessions held by the School Committee may have been justified according to the reasons given in state law for holding a closed session.”

Read more.

E-mail falls under meetings law, DA says

The district attorney’s office for Middlesex County has dismissed a complaint that a town conservation commission member violated the state’s open meetings law by sending an e-mail to other board members complaining about the board’s chair, the MetroWest Daily News reports today.

Assistant DA Loretta Lillios dismissed the complaint because the alleged violation was later remedied by making the e-mail part of the public record. In so doing, however, she cautioned that the law clearly applies to e-mails:

“As you know, this office has long held that private communications, including e-mail communications, that occur among a quorum of a governmental body, and that concern substantive matters within the jurisdiction of the governmental body, violate the Open Meeting Law. Like private conversations held in person or over the telephone, such e-mail conversations deprive the public of the opportunity to attend and monitor these e-mail ’meetings’ and are a serious violation of the Open Meeting Law.”

Supreme Court turns down Ayash appeal

The Supreme Court turned down an appeal today from The Boston Globe and a former reporter in a $2 million defamation judgment stemming from the paper’s refusal to reveal a confidential source, AP reports. Justices had been told that the case was important for protecting news sources, a subject of special interest with the summer jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller in a CIA leak case and court fights over civil contempt findings against other journalists.

The MNPA participated in an amicus brief filed in support of the appeal.

The Globe had been sued by a doctor who argued news articles wrongly blamed her for the death of a patient. The patient, Betsy Lehman, was the newspaper’s health columnist, who died in 1994 from an overdose of experimental cancer drugs.

Daily Hampshire Gazette sold to Newspapers of New England

Northampton’s Daily Hampshire Gazette, the oldest continually published newspaper in Massachusetts, is being sold to the Concord, N.H.-based Newspapers of New England, AP reports. The sale was announced Tuesday by Gazette publisher Peter DeRose, whose family has owned the newspaper since 1929.

The transaction, which is expected to be completed by January, also includes the sale of the weekly Amherst Bulletin, the Gazette’s smaller sister paper. The privately owned Newspapers of New England publishes the Recorder in Greenfield, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, and two other papers in New Hampshire.

Opinion: Tougher penalties needed to ensure open government

Prompted by the recent case of a school board’s closed-door meeting, William B. Ketter, editor-in-chief of Eagle-Tribune newspapers, writes in support of MNPA bills to toughen the enforcement provisions of the state’s open meeting laws. An excert:

“The right to publish stories about the performance of school officials is meaningless if you don’t also have the right to gather news about their deficiencies and accomplishments — even when a principal or superintendent objects on privacy grounds.

“Yet school boards routinely take up competency reviews away from the public eye, invoking an exemption in the state Open Meeting Law that allows closed-door discussion of an individual’s reputation or character. Challenges to this ruse usually go nowhere.”

[Read more.]

Papers win bid for bankruptcy report

An investigative report compiled by a court-appointed bankruptcy examiner is a public record and must be made available to the news media, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday in Gitto v. Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Two media organizations, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp. and MediaNews Group Inc., sought release of the report. They prevailed in their request in both the bankruptcy court and the district court before the case reached the 1st Circuit.

The case arose after Gitto Global Corp., a Massachusetts plastics manufacturer, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and the bankruptcy court appointed an examiner to investigate allegations of accounting irregularities.

Two former executives of the company argued that the resulting examiner’s report should be impounded under 11 U.S.C. section 107(b)(2), which provides an exception to public access for documents that contain material that is scandalous and defamatory.

But the 1st Circuit rejected their argument that any material tending to harm a person’s reputation triggers the exception. In so doing, the court affirmed that there is a long-standing common law presumption of public access to judicial records.

“To qualify for protection under the § 107(b)(2) exception for defamatory material,” the court said, “an interested party must show (1) that the material at issue would alter his reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person, and (2) that the material is untrue or that it is potentially untrue and irrelevant or included for an improper end.”