The decision comes in response to a complaint filed by The Shoestring
By Dusty Christensen
NORTHAMPTON — The state attorney general’s office has found that the Northampton School Committee broke the state’s Open Meeting Law after a Shoestring investigation revealed that the committee was missing minutes for some of its meetings dating back to at least 2021.
In a decision issued on March 14, Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Carnes Flynn wrote that the School Committee broke the law by failing to provide a timely response to Shoestring reporter Jonathan Gerhardson’s request for meeting minutes in October and by failing to create and approve minutes in a timely fashion in the first place.
“In its November 16 response to the complaint, the Committee acknowledged that at the time there were meeting minutes going back to April that had not yet been drafted or approved,” the decision states. “The Committee further acknowledged that there were some minutes from 2021 that had not yet been approved.”
The decision acknowledges the School Committee’s contention that a reduction in staff and an increase in meetings led to a backlog of minutes that needed to be created and approved.
“Although we understand and appreciate the demands on a public body with limited staff, it is the Committee’s obligation to timely create and approve minutes,” the decision says. “In general, staffing shortages of the type that all governmental bodies with limited resources experience, or periodic staff vacancies, do not constitute good cause for failing to approve minutes in a timely manner.”
Flynn went on to say that it is the public body’s responsibility to ensure that staff have adequate assistance, including by creating minutes if necessary. Flynn commended the School Committee for working through the backlog and auditing its past meeting minutes to establish a better process going forward.
In his complaint, Gerhardson also pointed out that some of the minutes he was provided were insufficiently detailed. The attorney general’s office declined to review that issue because that complaint wasn’t raised first with the School Committee.
However, Flynn said that the office did conduct a “cursory review” of a sample of minutes and found that some stated that discussions had occurred but did not summarize those discussions, as required by law.
“Additionally, some of the meeting minutes include a link to a recording of the meeting in lieu of summarizing the discussion held,” the decision says. “This is insufficient to comply with the Open Meeting Law.”
The attorney general’s office also found that some minutes did not include a list of documents used in decision making and failed to detail whether the School Committee voted by roll call as required by law.
In conclusion, the attorney general’s office ordered the School Committee to comply with the law, cautioning the body that “future similar violations may be considered evidence of intent to violate the law.” The School Committee has 60 days from the ruling to create, approve and provide the minutes it has not yet given to Gerhardson.
“As the Attorney General’s office acknowledged in their finding, the School Committee has been working to approve past meeting minutes, has provided minutes to the Complainant, and has taken steps to audit its past meeting minutes and establish a process to ensure the timely creation and approval of minutes going forward,” said School Committee Vice Chair Gwen Agna in a statement to The Shoestring. “We will be meeting next month to review the decision and determine what additional steps are needed to correct any insufficient minutes and other past compliance issues. Our goal is to identify and correct any issues and to ensure improved transparency moving forward.”
Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra did not immediately respond to an email request for comment Thursday afternoon.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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