EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 4, 2013

Editorial: Conduct public business in public view

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — If the people of Methuen fear that their city has begun to spiral out of control, there is good reason for their apprehension. Their elected leaders on the City Council seem either incapable of understanding or unwilling to follow the basic principles of good government.

First among these is the principle that the public’s business must be done in the public’s view.

Despite having been criticized for holding an illegal secret meeting during the search to replace the city solicitor, three councilors Saturday met privately at a local coffee shop where they discussed city business.

That gathering has prompted a complaint from a city resident and union leader that the councilors violated the Open Meeting Law.

Michael Gagliardi, business manager of the Laborer’s International Union Local 175, said in his complaint that councilors Jennifer Kannan, Jamie Atkinson and an unnamed third councilor met at the Starbucks in The Loop on Pleasant Valley Street Saturday to discuss “a strategy for the solicitor selection process” when the discussion should have happened at a public meeting.

The third member of the group was Councilor Lisa Ferry.

Gagliardi said in his letter that the conversation was about “how to circumvent Councilor Ron Marsan, who they believed was working towards the reappointment of the current solicitor.”

The City Council has been seeking a new solicitor since January when it voted not to reappoint the current solicitor, Peter McQuillan. The search produced 12 applicants. The six-mamber search committee held an illegal secret meeting in February, at which six or eight candidates were interviewed and the field whittled down to four finalists.

Two of those four finalists withdrew in early March, leaving just two candidates and prompting calls from some councilors to either reappoint McQuillan or restart the search.

The council voted Monday 5-4 to restart the search. Voting in favor were Atkinson, Ferry, Kannan, Marsan and Councilor Jeanne Pappalardo. Gagliardi, who filed the complaint, was a supporter of finalist Richard D’Agostino, a former assistant city solicitor for Lawrence.

Councilors involved in Saturday’s Starbucks gathering told reporter Douglas Moser the accusation of an open meeting law violation is unfounded.

“I feel like I’m being penalized for my vote (Monday) night,” Kannan told Moser. “Was I surprised when I saw this? Absolutely. It absolutely doesn’t hold any weight whatsoever.”

Kannan said the three councilors met at Starbucks Saturday and discussed the Thursday special council meeting, when councilors voted to approve a $100,001 settlement with police Chief Joseph Solomon.

Kannan said they also talked about Atkinson’s suggestion that McQuillan be reappointed.

The coffee shop gathering did not violate the Open Meeting Law as a quorum of five councilors was not present. Gagliardi says the meeting still violated the spirit of the law.

“The spirit and intent of it is to have all public discourse relative to the council discussing public business be discussed in a public forum,” he said.

Gagliardi is right. If the councilors wanted to talk about the idea of reappointing McQuillan as solicitor, that’s certainly something that should be conducted in a public forum.

As is so often the case when public officials skirt the Open Meeting Law, they believe they are doing so to serve some higher purpose — to protect the candidates or the town, or some such nonsense. Public officials forget that they are elected or hired to serve the people of their communities, no one else.

If these three councilors had something to discuss concerning the solicitor search or even the settlement with Chief Solomon, they should have done it in a public forum, where they would be unable to hide from the people they were elected to serve.

Secrecy has no place in government. It does nothing but erode public confidence in the people and institutions that are intended to represent their interests.