Local Government and Politics, Opinion

Let the sun shine in on open government and freedom of information

This article was published 6 months ago.

Sunshine Week is an initiative by media associations to promote openness in government. (Spenser Hasak)

We join the New England Newspaper & Press Association and New England First Amendment Coalition in marking “Sunshine Week” focused on open and easily-accessible public meetings. 

The Attorney General’s office states the Opening Meeting law’s purpose as “… promoting transparency with regard to deliberations and decisions on which public policy is based.”

The law sets requirements for posting public meeting notices. It lays out specific conditions for public bodies meeting behind closed doors in executive session, and specifies the process for holding closed-door meetings.

Coalition Executive Director Justin Silverman expanded on this goal by noting how late Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis used a metaphor to describe government transparency’s importance. 

“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” Brandeis said. Open government and unfettered freedom of information, in his view, are the best ways to keep democracy free from corruption and despotism.

Massachusetts’ Open Meeting laws date back to 1958. The Open Law is the spotlight shining on deliberations by government boards. 

Public bodies faced a significant test in 2020 when COVID-19 social gathering prohibitions made “Zoom” and “remote” household words and forced government meetings to retreat to computer screens. 

These restrictions did not lessen Open Meeting Law compliance monitoring.

Peabody City Councilor-at-Large Anne Manning-Martin filed an Open Meeting law complaint in November 2021 challenging the Peabody Zoning Board of Appeal’s compliance with the law. 

“Deliberations and decisions are not to be cavalierly made out of public view as if this is now the new norm. Such relaxed standards come with the risk of abuse, which is dangerous and causes our residents not to trust us,” she stated in her complaint.

The Coalition is advocating for permanent changes to state laws allowing both in-person and remote access to government meetings. Without hybrid meetings, people with young children, disabilities, health challenges, work commitments or other impositions that prevent in-person attendance are at risk of being shut out of the democratic process.

Massachusetts legislators recently recognized this reality with legislation that could serve as a model for other states.

The bill would apply to all executive branch agencies and municipal boards and commissions subject to the Open Meeting Law. It phases in a requirement that they meet in person and provide remote access and participation.

We join the Coalition, the Association, the News Leaders Association and The Society of Professional Journalists in affirming the Open Meeting Law by celebrating Sunshine Week.

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