March 17 2016
Selectmen, Town Council, Respond to Allegations of Open Meeting Law Violations
By: Rich Hosford
The Burlington Board of Selectmen responded to a pair of open meeting law complaints by refuting the claims of violations during Monday night’s meeting.
The complaints were submitted by Town Meeting members Steven Stamm and Ernest Zabolotny. Though the two letters were filed separately they touched on issues from the same meeting and so were considered together.
According to a letter from Kopelman and Paige attorney Michele Randazzo that will be sent to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office in response to the two complaints on behalf of the board, the complaints centered on an agenda item brought up during the February 22 meeting.
During that meeting Chairman Mike Runyan put forward a motion to discontinue offering health insurance moving forward, meaning that the 13 people (9 active, 4 retired) who currently take the benefit will be allowed to continue to do so. He also made clear that under Massachusetts General Law 32B any elected official who can demonstrate they put in over 20 hours a week on a regular basis must be allowed to apply for the benefit.
The motion was not seconded by any other members of the board so it was defeated by default.
There were a number of Town Meeting members in attendance at the meeting who expressed an interest in speaking on the matter. Runyan also said that a large packet of background information, including how much the benefit costs the town on an annual basis and news reports of other communities discontinuing the practice had been emailed to the board members. There was also a request by members to present a PowerPoint presentation
The Town Council email says that Stamm’s complaint alleges the Board of Selectmen “colluded so that the selectmen would not have to make public statements, information collected from elected officials … would not be publically presented and any discussion by town officials or the public would be prevented.”
Additionally, according to the letter, Zabolotny’s complaint alleges that the fact that two board members “understood from Town Counsel that they could deny public comment” suggests that members conducted an improper discussion in violation of Open Meeting Law. He also contends that the board was obligated to allow public comment at the meeting.
During Monday night’s meeting Runyan addressed both allegations, beginning with the assertion that the board had to entertain public comment. He said all the information had been presented already and listed a number of times when the subject was addressed. These included a May 2012 meeting when he made a motion to discontinue the benefit, an August 2015 meeting when the board discussed the proposal and the September 2015 Town Meeting when members voted to approve non-binding resolution to recommend the board discontinue the benefit.
“The night before meeting I got a request to replay the PowerPoint presentation,” he said. “After giving it some thought I responded to the email by denying the request. It was at that time I decided enough testimony had been presented over the past nine months. It was my decision and my decision alone.”
Runyan also said that because the discussion was just a proposed motion and not an open public hearing, Massachusetts Open Meeting Law (specifically G.L. 30A subjection 20) did not require the board to hear testimony from the public.
Town Council agreed in the letter. “The Open meeting Law requires that all members of the public have access to witness the open session deliberations of a public body; the Law does not give the public the right to address the Board or required the Board to respond,” Randazzo wrote.
As to the allegation of collusion Runyan and the rest of the board denied it outright.
“I can tell you that at no time did I ever call or attend a meeting that was not properly posted to discuss this item,” the chairman said. “That’s what I have to say on this matter.”
“I want to say that on my part I was unaware that there would be no discussion at the meeting,” Selectmen Bob Hogan said. “I expected to sit here for however long it took, so to imply there was collusion is wrong.”
“I knew it was an agenda item,” Grattan said. “But I had no prior knowledge of who would make a motion or what it would be. There was no discussion of policy. I don’t know where this notion of collusion has come from.”
Vice Chair Chris Hartling and Selectman Joe Morandi both agreed with the other members.
In the end the board voted 5-0-0 to take the position that no further action on either complaint is required.