Kudos to Mr. Joachim Soares, a candidate running for Stoughton School Committee, for defending people’s right to transparent government.
During the January 28, 2014 meeting of the School Committee, Superintendent Rizzi announced that she already hired a Community Relations Specialist without the knowledge of the School Committee, and put her cronies in a position of defending her misdeed again. Subsequent discussion revealed that Massachusetts Open Meeting Law was violated during the hiring process.
The purpose of the Open Meeting Law is to ensure transparency in the deliberations on which public policy is based. Because the democratic process depends on the public having knowledge about the considerations underlying governmental action, the Open Meeting Law requires, with some exceptions, that meetings of public bodies be open to the public.
I understand Mr. Soares filed an Open Meeting Law complaint against the Stoughton School Committee and Community Relations Subcommittee. Deborah Sovinee, Dr. Carol A. Brown, and Dr. Marguerite Rizzi were also named as perpetrators.
In his complaint (available at the Town Clerk’s office), Mr. Soares alleged the following. “During the 1/28/2014 meeting of the Stoughton School Committee (SSC), it has become evident that the Community Relations Subcommittee of the SSC met to discuss the applicants' resumes for the job of the Community Relations Specialist and made recommendations to the Superintendent. It has also become evident that the meeting was not properly posted in accordance with the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law. Therefore, the Open Meeting Law was violated and the person who was subsequently hired was hired illegally. This is a newly created position within the school committee budget.”
“Community Relations Subcommittee is comprised of two school committee members: Deborah Sovinee, and Carol A. Brown. During the 1/28/14 meeting, both Ms. Sovinee and Ms. Brown admitted subcommittee meeting took place, and admitted that they have discussed the resumes and made recommendations. Furthermore, Superintendent Rizzi falsely argued that since the subcommittee of two does not constitute a quorum of the full committee, subcommittee would not be subject to Open Meeting Law.”
“However, when this subcommittee was formed, it was agreed that as an offshoots of the full Committee, subcommittee must abide by the spirit and letter of the Open Meeting Law. All meetings must be posted, accurate minutes and/or reports kept, etc.”
To remedy the violation, Mr. Soares requests the School Committee to take the following five specific actions:
“1. Acknowledge in a public meeting and its minutes that the Stoughton School Committee violated the Open Meeting Laws.
2. Pledge immediate and future compliance with the Open Meeting Law.
3. Reverse the Hiring of the Community Relations Specialist.
4. Have this subcommittee meet in a posted Open Meeting to start the hiring process legally.
5. Have the members of this subcommittee and Superintendent Rizzi undergo Open Meeting Law training.”
At this stage, the complaint was sent only to the school committee (with a copy to Town Clerk) to give the school committee an opportunity to remedy the alleged violation. At the next meeting, the School Committee needs to decide if it wants to remedy the alleged violation, or may decide to negotiate with Mr. Soares. Alternatively, the School Committee may choose to fight the complaint and incur lawyer’s fees for Stoughton.
If Mr. Soares is not satisfied with the action taken by the School Committee in response to his complaint, then he may file a copy of his complaint with the Attorney General's Office.
When Dr. Rizzi proposed to hire a Community Relations Specialist for Stoughton Schools last year, there was a pushback from the FinCom education subcommittee, selectmen, and ultimately the Finance Committee. As a result, the finance committee recommended a smaller school budget than that was proposed by the superintendent and the school committee.
After all, do we really need to pay someone $30,000 to maintain a Face book page?
At the last minute in 2013 Town Meeting, some unclaimed
money was discovered and it was used to restore the school budget.
What Transpired during the 1/28/2014 meeting:
School Committee members and Superintendent argued that communications subcommittee of the school committee (comprised of Ms. Sovinee and Dr. Carol Brown) reviewed the resumes and picked the candidate for hiring on behalf of the School Committee.
It was further discussed that Communications subcommittee failed to meet in an open session, and therefore violated the open meeting law. Committee Chair Husseini must have recognized the violation because she attempted to deny that subcommittee met. Ms. Sovinee and Dr. Brown were oblivious to Ms. Husseini’s signals.
Below is some of the committee discussion on this matter:
Dr. Ural – Let me ask some questions to Dr. Rizzi and the subcommittee. Did the subcommittee meet?
Dr. Brown – Yes we did.
Dr. Ural – When did you meet?
Dr. Brown – Debra and I had went to a meeting.
Joyce Husseini – They didn’t meet. They individually reviewed the resumes.
Dr. Ural – Did you meet to review the resumes?
Dr. Brown – We discussed the resumes.
Dr. Ural – When did you discuss the resumes?
Debra Sovinee – I don’t know. Weeks ago. Why?
Dr. Ural – Because that is a violation of the Open Meeting Law.
(Interested readers are referred to the meeting video for the full discussion.)
Previous Decisions and Orders of the Attorney General’s Office (AGO):
Approximately 2 years ago AGO decided that Stoughton School Committee violated the Open Meeting Law by failing to provide sufficient detail about the purpose for its executive session, both in its meeting notice and when it convened in executive session during the September 28, 2010 meeting. The AGO decideded the Committee further violated the Open Meeting Law by failing to ratify in open session Superintendent Rizzi’s contract extension agreed to between the Committee and the Superintendent Rizzi during executive session.
Accordingly, Attorney General’s Office ordered immediate and future compliance with the Open Meeting Law and cautioned the Committee that a determination by AGO of similar violations in the future may be considered evidence of intent to violate the Open Meeting Law.
AGO also ordered the Committee to attend a training on the Open Meeting Law to be conducted by an attorney or organization familiar with the requirements of the Open Meeting Law and approved by AGO.
AGO also ordered the Committee to amend its September 28, 2010 meeting minutes, and to draft and approve a new set of executive session minutes for March 1, 2011 meeting.
For a specified reason, AGO declined to take the further remedial action requested by the complainant, namely nullifying the action taken by the Committee in approving Dr. Rizzi's contract. However, AGO, strongly recommended that the Committee reconsider the vote on Rizzi’s contract extension “in the interest of transparency.”