LAWRENCE — When is a public meeting not a public meeting?

When the door to the building where the meeting is being held is locked.

On Wednesday night, the Planning Board held a meeting, as advertised on the city's website, in the offices at 12 Methuen St. The meeting was held on the first floor and it started at 6 p.m., according to the agenda.

The Planning Board, like all local government bodies, is required by law to open its meetings to the public.

An Eagle-Tribune reporter, arriving around 6:20 p.m., reached for the door handle to enter the building, but it was locked. So he knocked on the door labeled "City of Lawrence Planning Department," but there was no answer to that or the ringing of the bell. 

The lights were on and the only person visible was a small child sitting at what looked like the receptionist's desk in the lobby. When the reporter knocked on the window immediately behind the child, the boy ran somewhere into the building. He returned shortly after, glanced at the front door, and sat down again.

A dozen or so cars were in the parking lot, which is shared with a couple of nonprofit agencies that are also tenants in the building.

Brenda Rozzi, a member of the Planning Board, said that the door sometimes locks automatically, but that "usually, it is unlocked. Normally the doors are open, and it should have been open."

She said the board did hold a meeting to discuss two sign requests. A third item on the agenda, a discussion of Sal Lupoli's project on Merrimack Street, was continued to the next meeting.

"It was only two signs, nothing major," Rozzi said, adding that she did see the boy run into the meeting room, say something to his mother, who was taking minutes, and then run out. Nothing was said to the rest of the board, she said. 

"We saw the kid come in," she said. "Next time, tell me when you're coming and we'll make sure it's unlocked."

The chairwoman of the Planning Board, Tamar Kotelchuck, said she wasn't sure why the door was locked, noting that other people did get into the meeting, including the people with sign applications and a member of the public.

"We were meeting," she said. "We had two cases. A community member made it in, and we even started a bit late."

She said she also saw the son of the woman taking minutes "come in and say something to her."

She blamed the locked door on changes in the Planning Department, including the retirement of longtime administrative assistant Anne-Marie Nyhan-Doherty.

"I'm assuming the door was locked because things are in transition," she said. "Everyone else was able to get in, but I don't know for sure what happened. They are public meetings, they are open to the public."

The Eagle-Tribune emailed City Clerk William Maloney, who is considered the city's public records liaison, and Kotelchuck, making a formal complaint that the board had violated the state's Open Meeting Law by meeting behind a locked door.

According to the law, a complaint must be made to the "public body," in this case the Planning Board, within 30 days of the incident.

The board has 14 business days to "send a copy of the complaint to the attorney general and notify the attorney general of any remedial action taken."