By Tom Duggan – March, 2017
On January 23rd, the Methuen School Committee went into an executive session, (a meeting where the public is excluded) claiming they were going to discuss a “litigation” matter. The actual matter of litigation to be discussed was not revealed to the public, as required by law.
An email was sent to committee members on the day of the meeting (January 23rd), stating an executive session was anticipated, but did not list what was specifically to be discussed. Executive sessions must be publicly posted 48 hours before the meeting takes place.
Additionally, the Methuen School Committee did not discuss any “litigation” when they held their secret session.
Instead, according to committee members, the meeting degenerated into a heated political discussion about a public internet survey taken by School Committeeman Jana DiNatale, without their permission or input.
Committee members said they were unhappy that DiNatale listed herself as a Methuen School Board member on the survey, something she is legally allowed to do.
School Committee member Nick DiZoglio said that the schools had received a complaint about the survey, and that some members of the public inferred that the survey was being done by the Methuen Public Schools. He also said he objected to some of the misinformation in the public responses to the survey.
“I think Jana has a big heart,” DiZoglio said.
“I think she believes in what she is doing, but I have a problem with the way it’s being done. I have a problem with some of the comments that were made on her post, and I think she has an obligation to correct false information. There were a lot of things posted that were just not right.”
DiZoglio said he was also concerned that some of the comments online by members of the public “targeted children” as “being from Lawrence” and was concerned for their safety.
As an elected school board member, DiNatale had decided, on her own, to take a public survey online to get input from the public, on matters concerning the Methuen Public Schools.
The survey was published on “SurveyMonkey” and asked for public input on issues like :
MPS does not currently require annual proof of residency for all students. Proof of residency requires parents to provide documentation, but it helps to ensure that only Methuen students are attending Methuen schools. Are you in favor of annual proof of residency for all students?
She then posted the survey link on her Facebook page for members of the public to comment.
PUBLIC IS DENIED TRANSPARENCY
If the true purpose of the executive session was to address a “complaint” about a fellow board member, the open meeting law is perfectly clear;
“The individual who is the subject of the discussion may also choose to have the discussion in an open meeting, and that choice takes precedence over the right of the public body to go into executive session .”
DiNatale said she had no idea she was going into executive session to discuss herself, so she voted for it.
“They said we were going into executive session and I specifically asked the purpose. The Superintendent said ‘litigation’ so, I voted to go in based on that stated purpose. I would not have voted that way if I knew the true reason, because I wanted to have that discussion held in public. If they want to complain about me communicating with the public, let them do it in public.”
“Had I been given adequate notice of the session,” DiNatale continued, “I would have (1) had time to research my rights with regard to the session and invoked that right to have the discussion in an open meeting, and (2) had a chance to consult with the proper authorities about the legality of an executive session for the stated purpose.”
Last year, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office found that the Salisbury Board of Selectmen violated the state’s open meeting law after a complaint by Patrick Higgins. The AG’s office ruled that the selectmen held an illegal executive session, because they “ambiguously” listed the purpose of the meeting as “litigation”. The AG’s office ruled that the subject matter of the litigation must be detailed, such as: “litigation pertaining to the Smith lawsuit.”
SO…WHAT ABOUT THAT LITIGATION?
When asked what “litigation” the school committee was supposed to discuss in that executive session, none of the school board members we spoke with could remember. When contacted about the meeting, Committeeman Nick DiZoglio said that he didn’t remember the litigation matter, but “we never got to it,” saying a number of other things were discussed.
DiZoglio did say that he and Superintendent Scannell contacted the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) after the meeting and were told that the topic of DiNatale’s survey was an issue appropriate for executive session. They did not address the legality of the meeting itself because of lack of transparency or open meeting law violations.
MASC is not a regulatory authority and could not give a final ruling on that issue. Someone would have to call the AG’s office or State Ethics Commission for an official ruling.
School Committee member DiNatale says she had to threaten to file a complaint to get the minutes of the executive session released, and when they finally were released they were inaccurate.
DiNatale had to request the minutes be amended to include the discussion about her survey before they were finally voted on and released to the public.