Attorney General reviews Mayor’s Panhandling Work Group for alleged Open Meeting Law violations

Update: After review, the Attorney General found that the Mayor’s Panhandling Work Group does not violate open meeting laws.

Dear readers,

We wanted to update you on a story we’ve been following for quite some time. On April 9th, 2018, we leaked a confidential report from the Mayor’s Workgroup on Panhandling — an “advisory group” intended to give the mayor advice on “non legislative” and “non punitive” ways to, we learned from the report, “reduce” the need to ask for money downtown in Northampton.

The group contained a City Councilor (Dennis Bidwell from Ward-2), the Northampton Police Dept., business owners, as well as representatives from ServiceNet, Tapestry Health, HampshireHOPE, Eliot Homeless Services, and Hampshire County Friends of the Homeless. All meetings were closed to the public, no meeting notes were posted, and when initially asked about even the existence of such a group, The Shoestring was met with denial.

Instead of having a public process, we learned from surveys released by the group, that the group was indeed floating punitive and legislative proposals to “reduce” the need for panhandling, such as a law to criminalize it, and a “greater [police] presence” that would “actively discourage panhandling.” This is despite the fact that criminalizing panhandling would likely be found unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.

The Shoestring wondered why the Open Meeting Law didn’t apply to such a group. And so, on November 5th, 2018, we issued a complaint, posing the question to the Mayor as well as the Attorney General’s office. In MA general law, a public body that would be subject to Open Meeting Law is defined as such: “a multiple-member board, commission, committee or subcommittee within the executive or legislative branch or within any county, district, city, region or town, however created, elected, appointed or otherwise constituted, established to serve a public purpose.” Further, the law specifically states that “provided further, that a subcommittee shall include any multiple-member body created to advise or make recommendations to a public body.”

As per the Open Meeting Law, the Mayor had three weeks to respond to our complaint. Northampton City Clerk Alan Seewald did so in a letter, dated November 28th, in which he asserts that the PWG is not subject to open meeting law due to an exemption rooted in Connelly v. School Committee of Hanover, an Open Meeting Law (OML) lawsuit in 1991. As the letter states, Connelly ruled that “an individual public official creates an informal committee to advise that person on a decision that he or she has the sole authority to make, that committee is not subject to the Open Meeting Law.” The Connelly ruling was in response to a superintendent creating a committee that advised him in his appointment of a school principal. He also cited another recent Connelly case where a mayor successfully skirted the OML when creating a advisory group to weigh in on a parade.

In February, The Shoestring took the next step in the complaint process, asking the AG for further review. In our appeal, we stake out some important differences between the cases of the PWG and the cases that Seewald cites in his letter to us. In our letter to the AG we argue:

There are substantive differences between the nature of PWG and the cases cited in Seewald’s letter. Both Connelly cases cited involved decisions that were made without input from either the public or the people who would be impacted by these decisions. What is different in this case is the Mayor’s reliance on the general public and the targeted population, in this case panhandlers, in the form of outward surveys to explicitly get their input on potential policy ideas. In other words, this is a unique case because it is a public process — but the terms are set by a secretive group rather than the Open Meeting Law.

The Shoestring is still waiting for the AG to respond with its review.

The Mayor’s Workgroup on Panhandling was supposed to release a report containing its recommendations on how to best “reduce” the need for panhandling downtown last summer. But when asked about the release of the report in October 2018, the Mayor said it was still forthcoming.

In preparing this update, we reached out to Mayor Narkewicz twice, specifically asking if the report was still forthcoming and whether the group was still meeting. He didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

-The Shoestring

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