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Potential Open Meeting Law Verdict from School Committee's Emails

In what may be a violation of the state's Open Meeting law, School Committee members discussed in advance, by e-mail, a statement they planned to make at their November 3 meeting regarding the "locker room incident" at Milford High School. E-mails among the committee members – which are considered to be public records – were requested by the Milford Town Crier and detail their discussions.

Committee Chair Lori Baranauskas kicked off the discussion by writing an e-mail to her colleagues at 1:51 p.m. on October 31: "In speaking individually with some of you over the past couple of days, despite our lack of jurisdiction as a SC over the disciplining of students and the hiring/firing of staff, it is felt that we need to make a statement together as a committee. I have drafted the below statement and would like your input asap please. If you are OK with it, please simply reply. If you have comments, feel free to mark it up and if you want to discuss personally, as always, please call me."

Rob Lanzetta replied at 2:38 p.m.: "Thanks for putting this together. I do think it is important that we as a committee put out a statement. Couple of suggestions I have (take them or leave them). In the list of those who investigated this matter, I think the Director of Safety and Security should be added. Also, in the last sentence of the first paragraph, though we do of course have full confidence in our Administration and local police to handle the investigation fairly, should we ask that we will review the policies that they were followed and whether or not revisions are needed?"

Baranauskas replied at 2:47 p.m.: "thanks Rob. like Pat [Kennelly] and I discussed earlier, in order for us to review whether or not the policies were followed (I assume you mean bullying/hazing policies?), we would have to know the specific details of what happened with each student and whether or not the rules were consistent. I do think at this point we can ask Bob [Tremblay] publicly on Thursday night in open session to confirm to us that he is confident that all policies were applied fairly and consistently, and that there is documentation to back that up. He has said as much to us, but I think it is reasonable for the committee to ask him to say so publicly? others agree?"

Rob Lanzetta replied at 3:40 p.m.: "Thanks. Yes, I was referring to the protocol followed for bullying/hazing. I agree with that that it is just as well if Bob responds on Thursday in open meeting."

Paul Mazzuchelli replied at 5:21 p.m.: "Thanks Lori this is fine."

Patrick Holland also replied at 5:21 p.m., prefacing his reply with the statement, "this is not offered for deliberation or discussion." He commented: "I read the letter you drafted. I understand the sentiment you are trying to convey and do not fault you in your motivation. However, I do not feel comfortable with its message and do not think its publication will serve to strengthen the committee. If you feel the need to make the statements found therein, please do not publish it as coming from the committee and do not list my name as sanctioning the message."

Michael Walsh replied at 9:20 p.m.: "When a Committee votes for a Chairperson they have put their faith and trust in that person. That person must guide us through very difficult times like we are dealing with at the present. Chairwoman Baranauskas has tried to keep all committee members fully informed and aware of the situation and from my seat she has done great job. So if all members truly want to handle this concern in best interest of the Milford Public Schools let us support Mrs. Barnauskas who we elected to be our Chairwoman."

What Does the Law Say?

School Committee member PatrickHolland's e-mail phrase, "not offered for deliberation or discussion," goes to the heart of the possible Open Meeting law violation, since whether or not there was a violation rests on how people define the word "deliberaton" as used in the Open Meeting law.

After the law was revised in 2010, Attorney General Martha Coakley published a July 1, 2010 "Open Meeting Law Guide" that states: "The Open Meeting Law defines deliberation as 'an oral or written communication through any medium, including electronic mail, between or among a quorum of a public body on any public business within its jurisdiction.' Distributing a meeting agenda, scheduling or procedural information, or reports or documents that may be discussed at the meeting will not constitute deliberation, so long as the material does not express the opinion of a member of the public body. E-mail exchanges between or among a quorum of members of a public body discussing matters within the body's jurisdiction may constitute deliberation, even where the sender of the email does not ask for a response from the recipients.

"To be a deliberation, the communication must involve a quorum of the public body. A quorum is usually a majority of the members of a public body. Thus, a communication among less than a quorum of the members of a public body will not be a deliberation, unless there are multiple communications among the members of the public body that would together be a communication among a quorum of members. Courts have held that the Open Meeting Law applies when members of a public body communicate in a manner that seeks to evade the application of the law. Thus, in some circumstances, communications between two members of a public body, when taken together with other communications, may be a deliberation."


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