Meeting Law Violations Alleged In Bourne
By: MICHAEL J. RAUSCH, August 15, 2014
Selectmen have been charged with violating the state’s Open Meeting Law in their handling of the recent proposal to bring unaccompanied immigrant minors to Joint Base Cape Cod. The charges were filed by Mashnee Road resident Richard W. Conron. Mr. Conron alleged violations by both the board as a whole and individually by member Linda M. Zuern.
In his request to the state attorney general’s office for an investigation into the board’s actions, Mr. Conron stated that selectmen violated the Open Meeting Law during their July 22 session when they voted to send a letter to Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick. The letter was in opposition to the governor’s offer to the Obama administration to house immigrant children who had crossed illegally into the United States from Mexico and Central America at a federally run shelter at Camp Edwards.
The federal government eventually decided not to send any of the children to Massachusetts due to decreasing numbers of illegal minors crossing the border.
Mr. Conron noted that the wording for the July 22 meeting’s agenda stated, “Discussion and Disposition of non-documented unaccompanied children at Camp Edwards Cape Cod.” He said that the wording was too general and not specific enough in “the intent, actions or outcomes of the Board of Selectmen.”
He added that the generality and lack of specifics deprived the public of the opportunity to voice opinions on all sides, and the agenda item should have included “vote, or possible vote.”
“I feel this type of agenda verbiage, missing the word “vote,” is a violation of the Open Meeting Law because the board of selectmen took an action not listed on the meeting agenda,” he said.
Also, Mr. Conron requested a separate investigation of Ms. Zuern, alleging that she violated the Open Meeting Law during the board’s August 5 session when, as part of the agenda item “Selectmen’s Reports,” she invited the public to attend an anti-immigration rally at the Bourne Bridge Rotary the following Saturday.
He alleged that Ms. Zuern used her position as a selectman to promote an event that “had no relationship or linkage to any official business of the town.”
“In my opinion, her announcement appears to be only connected to her personal political affiliations, beliefs and interests. I feel this type of announcement by an elected official at a public meeting is in violation of the Open Meeting Law,” he said.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Conron pointed out that a guide to the Open Meeting Law is available online at the state government’s website. Under the heading “What information must meeting notices contain?” the guide specifically states, “the list of topics must be sufficiently specific to reasonably inform the public of the issues to be discussed at the meeting.”
“They should have discussed the draft [letter] and voted on it at their next meeting. This was a rush to judgment,” he said.
He called the way the selectmen handled the immigrant children matter “detrimental to the image of the town.”
As to his allegation against Ms. Zuern, he noted that the Open Meeting Law guide also addresses which matters are under the jurisdiction of a public body such as the selectmen. The guide states that it does not specifically define jurisdiction; however, “as a general rule, any matter of public business on which a quorum of the public body may make a decision or recommendation is considered a matter within the jurisdiction of the public body.”
Mr. Conron felt that promoting the rally did not fall within the criteria stated in the guide.
“Those kinds of announcements should not be made because it is not town business,” he said.
Mr. Conron is a member of the Bourne Democratic Town Committee—a committee that has been highly critical of the board’s stand on the child immigrant issue.
Selectmen chairman Peter J. Meier said that he believes the board was within its right to draft and send the letter to the governor. Mr. Meier declined to comment any further, saying that he was waiting to hear back from town counsel Robert S. Troy with regard to Mr. Conron’s allegations. He said that the matter will be on the agenda to be discussed in executive session during the board’s meeting on August 26.
Asked about the specific charge against her, Ms. Zuern defended herself, saying that she makes announcements all the time during board meetings under the agenda item “Selectmen’s Reports.”
Many of the announcements include events organized by nonprofit organizations, or television shows that she has appeared on, she said. She added that the rally in question was not arranged by any political party or organization, and it was open to anyone who wanted to attend.
Ms. Zuern said she believes Mr. Conron’s actions are politically motivated and that it would be “pretty disturbing” if the attorney general’s office curtails the board’s right to freedom of speech.
“If they rule we can’t talk about anything that doesn’t pertain directly to the agenda, that is pretty bad,” she said.