New Open Meeting Law Set To Improve Access
But in Belmont, the law has Town Clerk scrambling for a place to display town meetings.
Changes to the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law going into effect today, July 1, will end the days when public notices of upcoming meetings from the Board of Selectmen to a lowly subcommittee were written with only political insiders in mind.
But the law is also proving to be a headache for town clerks who work in historic buildings such as Belmont.
The law, which passed earlier this year, was created to provide greater access and information on future meetings, said Ellen O'Brien Cushman, Belmont's Town Clerk.
The law requires boards or committees to provide 48 hour advanced public notice before holding a meeting and that does not include weekends
Cushman said the biggest change the public reading the notice and especially town officials who write them is the end of the unspecific agenda item that is so broad you could drive a truck through.
Included with current requirements such as the name of the group holding the meeting, time and its location, the new law requires the agenda to get down to the nitty gritty when telling the public what's on the agenda.
Starting today, gone are meeting agendas that indicate that some broad issue such as New Business or General Updates, are no longer acceptable.
The posting must contain a list of specific agenda topics that the chairman or who ever is leading the group has reasonable expectation will be discussed at the meeting.
For example, if a committee is reviewing the budget for the town, simply putting "budget review" may suffice, said Cushman.
But it would be incorrect for the committee to indicate "budget" when the item was more targeted such as the selectmen's expenses. As with the term "Old Business," it must now spell out each item that could be brought before the group as "Old Business."
And all this information must be placed on a half-a-sheet of paper and, please, committees and groups should "ditch" the artwork from their official documents.
Cushman said she has not heard from board and committee chiefs or clerks on the issue.
"It's been rather quiet. They seem to know what's expected (of them)," she said.
The legislature also placed a provision in the bill that has some town clerks in a tizzy.
One of the new requirements is that meeting notices be available to the public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The catch is the notices are required to be in close proximity of the town clerk's office.
While towns with newer, more modern administration buildings that are not in protected historic area will have the ability to build a kiosk or board to store the records. For towns such as Belmont, that approach is physically impossible in historically registered property.
Cushman said town clerks statewide had expressed a hope that the requirements would have been loosened to allow for Internet public access. But state officials felt that would exclude many who have limited access to a computer.
As a stopgap measure, Cushman will place the notices in a folder and then walk the notices over to the lobby of the Belmont Police Station that does have a 24 hour access.