SJC Issues Key Open Meeting Ruling

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today issued its ruling in a key open meeting law case, District Attorney for the Northern District v. School Committee of Wayland. The SJC ruled that the School Committee violated the law when it met in a closed session to discuss the performance evaluation of Wayland’s superintendent of schools and when it exchanged private e-mails regarding the evaluation in advance of the meeting.

In so ruling, the SJC sides with the position taken by the district attorney and by the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association in an amicus brief it filed in the case. The case was initiated by a complaint filed by a reporter for the Wayland Town Crier.

The ruling is significant for three reasons:

  • It affirms that discussions of a government employee’s “professional competence” must be conducted in public.
  • It affirms that an exchange of e-mails among the members of a public body can constitute “deliberation” and therefore violate the open meeting law.
  • It clarifies a seeming conflict between the open meeting law and the public records law. While the discussion of an employee’s performance evaluation must take place in an open meeting, once the evaluation is reduced to a written evaluation document, that document need not be made public.

The School Committee had argued that the evaluation was a prelude to contract negotiations with the superintendent and therefore was exempt as a strategy session in preparation for negotiations. But the SJC said that there was no evidence that the committee discussed strategy.

This is an important ruling for affirming the right of the public to know how their local officials are performing in their jobs. The public has a right to know when a local official is performing well or performing poorly.

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