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Wrong Time to Weaken Oversight of Our Government

A wonderful article by Robert Stewart in the July 26 Groton Herald called out an initiative working its way through the statehouse that would water down the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law (OML). Those that believe that good government is open government should be concerned about the effort to diminish this valuable regulation.
     The premise of the initiative is that the OML creates hardship on municipal entities and is subject to abuse in the form of the filing of excessive nuisance complaints. It is true that the law is a burden and in fact a hindrance to municipal government. It can make things take longer and mean that what would be preferred to be done in private, must be done in public. And certainly, in some towns, a considerable volume of nuisance complaints are filed.
     But it is also true that when upheld, it assures that backroom deals are not done out of view of the public, and creates a norm of accountability that cannot be counted on simply by electing people we like.
     Here in Groton some Board Members have disparaged the OML, finding it difficult to understand and at times ambiguous. It is sometimes seen as an unnecessary constraint and an inconvenience that good and honest officials should not have to endure. Ironically, we have seen some of those same good and honest officials attempt to make backroom deals that they sincerely thought were in the best interest of the town. When held to the light of the OML, these actions were acknowledged to be unwise. Humbling apologies, a disenfranchised public and lessons learned are left in their wake.
     Thankfully, most seem to understand the OML’s intent and boundaries perfectly well. The prospect of being found to be in violation of the law is a substantial factor in assuring that our elected officials act in a manner that yields an open government where the public is provided visibility into the actions of its elected and appointed representatives. Here in Groton we have seen relatively few complaints filed. The majority were validated, and most of those that were not still had to do with legitimate issues of concern. Nor have we seen an inordinate burden placed on officials having to respond to complaints. These complaints have provided important checks and balances and remind our representatives that there are expectations to be met, and that people are watching. Such oversight is critical to good and honest government, and the OML is key to that oversight.
     There are an amazing amount of things happening culturally and politically in our country. It is hard to know where we can make a difference. The OML makes a difference. It is worth letting your state representatives know how you feel about the proposed changes to this law. The weakening of oversight is a bad direction for democracy.
Jack Petropoulos
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