Councilors testify in Open Meeting lawsuit

Face new claims of secrecy

Boston City Council President Steve Murphy and two other councilors took the stand in a June 20 court hearing about allegations that the council continues to violate the state Open Meeting Law, the Gazette has learned.

The Suffolk County Superior Court hearing marks the final chapter in a six-year-old lawsuit that resulted in the City Council admitting to multiple secret meetings held in 2003-05. Now the plaintiffs want a judge to permanently bar the council from ever violating the Open Meeting Law, according to lead plaintiff Kevin McCrea. A decision is expected this summer.

“They’re violating the Open Meeting Law again,” McCrea told the Gazette, alleging secret meetings and votes on items that were not on meeting agendas.

City Councilor Mike Ross, who represents part of Hyde Square and testified at the court hearing, declined to comment directly about the case due to the pending decision. But in general, Ross said, the council has improved its transparency since ultimately losing the lawsuit in 2009.

“There was a significant culture shift at City Council that no policy discussion can occur…without being in front of the public,” Ross said. The council now publicizes activities that the Open Meeting Law does not even apply to, he said.

Murphy and City Councilor Maureen Feeney, who reportedly also testified in court, did not respond to Gazette interview requests.

McCrea said that Murphy and Feeney said in court that they believe the council never violated the Open Meeting Law in the first place. He quoted Murphy as saying, “‘If we had better attorneys, we would’ve won.’”

“The City Council was basically saying, ‘We think we’ve been good. We’ve changed our ways,’” McCrea said.

But, McCrea said, he challenged the councilors with some recent examples of alleged secrecy. One was a June 1 State House private meeting among city councilors and state representatives that was advertised as about redistricting—the redrawing of electoral districts. But, the City Clerk’s Office told the Gazette, that meeting was accidentally mislabeled on the city calendar and was only a social gathering.

McCrea also cited the council’s practice of taking last-minute votes on items that did not appear on the publicly advertised meeting agenda. The items come from so-called green sheets—lists, printed on green paper, of legislation sitting in council committees. McCrea called the green sheets a “mechanism for surprise votes.”

“It may not be the best example of process to pull items [for late votes] from the green sheet, but it’s not the norm, [and] it doesn’t violate the Open Meeting Law,” said Ross, speaking generally about the use of green sheets.

Ross said such votes, which essentially skip the normal committee hearing process, are taken only in “extreme circumstances” like a sudden funding deadline. He noted that the vote is still public, and that items get on the green sheets in the first place through public meetings.

The Open Meeting Law requires all government bodies to hold advertised, public meetings if they are considering any policy issue, with only a few exceptions. The law is intended to prevent secret decision-making and to ensure public input.

McCrea’s lawsuit, filed in 2005, revealed 11 secret council meetings with Boston Redevelopment Authority and Boston University officials. Courts fined the city more than $10,000 and scolded the council for its secrecy.

The lead defendant in the case was then-Council President Michael Flaherty. Since then, both Flaherty and McCrea have unsuccessfully run for mayor. Flaherty left office and this year is campaigning to return to the council. Flaherty has credited the lawsuit with educating him on the importance of government transparency.

Whatever the judge rules, “We’re all thankful it’s over,” McCrea said, referring also to his co-plaintiffs, Shirley Kressel and Katherine Devine. “We won the [original] case.”

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