Mashpee School Board Likely Violated State's Open Meeting Law

A special executive session meeting of the Mashpee School Committee, during which it discussed extending new superintendent Brian A. Hyde's contract through 2018, likely violated Massachusetts Open Meeting Law rules, Town Clerk Deborah F. Dami said this week.

The agenda for the meeting, which was held on December 17, did not mention that there would be contract negotiations with Mr. Hyde. The two items listed on the agenda were "strategy in preparation for negotiation with non-union personnel," and "strategy in preparation for collective bargaining with Unit B."

"The agenda was written in a very vague format," said Ms. Dami. "Executive session agendas need to be as specific as possible. If you are discussing a high-level contract such as that of the school superintendent, then you should let it be known what you will be talking about." She added that she has since sent the school department sample agendas and copies of the open meeting rules, and that she does not believe any potential violation involved malicious intent.

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Mr. Hyde participated in the meeting, which was held in his office.

None of the members of "Unit B," the section of the union that includes administrators such as vice principals, the special education director, guidance director, and athletic director were in attendance, said Scott P. McGee, chairman of the Mashpee School Committee.

An Open Meeting Law Guide on the Massachusetts Attorney General's website specifies that a meeting agenda shall be printed in a legible, easily understandable format and shall contain the date, time, and place of such meeting and a listing of topics that the chairman reasonably anticipates will be discussed at the meeting. In addition, it is also noted that before the executive session, the chairman shall state the purpose for the executive session, stating all subjects that may be revealed without compromising the purpose for which the executive session was called.

Mr. McGee said yesterday that he did not mention, prior to the opening of the December 17 executive session, that an extension to Mr. Hyde's contract was going to be discussed.

"The school attorney says we executed every element of postings and subsequent meetings perfectly and according to Open Meeting Law with regards to the superintendent's contract," Mr. McGee wrote in a text message on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Mr. McGee, while still strongly defending his committee, said that he would repost the meeting and take another vote if it is deemed necessary.

"I'm flabbergasted as to how this could happen. In my heart of hearts I would like to think that somebody just made a mistake. But a superintendent contract negotiation is not where a mistake like this should have been made," said Selectman Michael R. Richardson, who also serves as the board's liaison with the school committee.

As of press time yesterday, the minutes of the December 17 meeting had not yet been filed with the town clerk and were not available for review.

It is not known at this time whether a complaint regarding the potential Open Meeting Law violation has been filed directly with Massachusetts Attorney General Martha M. Coakley's office.

The Attorney General's website states that "a complaint must be filed in writing with a public body within 30 days of the date of the alleged violation, or if the Open Meeting Law violation could not reasonably have been known at the time it occurred, then within 30 days of the date it should reasonably have been discovered."

While the executive session occurred on December 17, it is unlikely that anyone would have known what was discussed in the session until the committee announced Mr. Hyde's contract extension at its January 8 meeting.

"If the AGO has reasonable cause to believe that the Open Meeting Law has been violated intentionally, the AGO may convene a hearing to determine whether the violation was intentional, whether the public body, one or more of its members, or both, were responsible, and whether to impose on the public body a civil penalty of up to $1,000 for each violation," the attorney general office website states.

"This should be a lesson to all town boards and committees. This is serious stuff, and the Attorney General's Office takes it seriously," Ms. Dami said.

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