Superior Court Quashes Attorney General’s Open Meeting Law Determination

In the case of Town of Swansea v. Maura Healy, Suffolk Superior Court, C.A. No. 1784CV03269, Attorney Gregg J. Corbo successfully prosecuted the Town of Swansea’s appeal of a determination by the Attorney General’s Division of Open Government that the Town’s Board of Selectmen violated the Open Meeting Law with respect to the sufficiency of its meeting notices. Notwithstanding the substantial deference accorded to the Attorney General in such cases, Attorney Corbo convinced the Court that the Division’s decision was arbitrary and capricious, and as a result, the decision was quashed by the Court.

The case concerned the level of detail required for listing discussion topics in meeting notices as required by G.L. c. 30A, §20(b).  The specific matter involved the Board of Selectmen’s annual discussion and vote to fill appointed positions in the Town.  Due to the large number of appointments being considered, and limited space for posting meeting notices on the Town Hall bulletin board, the meeting notice simply stated that the Board would be considering annual appointments and that a list of specific positions and appointments was on file with the Town Clerk. The Board followed this procedure for two consecutive meetings, after being told by a representative of the Division that the practice was acceptable. Although the meeting notices were identical, the Division found that  one notice was sufficiently detailed because the full list of appointments did not fit on the bulletin board, but it found that the second notice was not sufficiently detailed because the list could fit on the bulletin board. As a result of this finding, the Division found that the Board violated the Open Meeting Law.

In quashing the Division’s decision, the Court found that the Division acted in arbitrarily by applying subjective criteria, such as available bulletin board space, to determine whether a meeting notice is sufficiently detailed. The Court further found that the Division does not have the authority to expand the meaning of the Open Meeting Law by requiring more detail in meeting notices than is required by G.L. c. 30A, §20(b) and that the Division must interpret the law in a non-arbitrary manner. This is an important decision insofar as it establishes limits on the authority of the Division of Open Government and it protects municipalities attempting to comply with the law in good faith.