Reporter's Notebook: Council mulls new rules on Open Meeting front

The ripple effect of the Marlborough City Council’s Open Meeting Law violation is reaching its Boston counterpart.

The Boston City Council, which, in a separate case, broke the law several times between 2003 and 2005, is expected to change some of its rules to come into compliance when it meets next week.

First, some background: Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office, which oversees and enforces the Open Meeting Law, found that a May 2011 meeting of the Marlborough body’s five-member finance committee had all 11 members of the council attend and act as they would in a full meeting of the council. The finance committee’s meeting, a notice of which was posted in accordance with the Open Meeting Law, aired live on cable access television.

“Although the Finance Committee posted notice for its meeting on that date, the full Council did not,” wrote Jonathan Sclarsic, assistant attorney general in the Division of Open Government, several months ago in his letter to Marlborough City Council President Arthur Vigeant. “Members of the Council, who are not members of the Finance Committee, may attend a subcommittee meeting without it being a meeting of the Council as long as they do not deliberate.”

Translation: A council member can attend a meeting of a committee that he or she is not part of but they have to listen as members of the audience and participate in the same manner as an audience member. “He would not be able to sit with the council,” City Council President Stephen Murphy explained. “He would have to go to a committee hearing to testify with the public, say why he is opposed or in favor, and if he wanted to ask questions of somebody, he would have to ask questions through a member of committee.”

Sclarsic wrote that the Marlborough violation, which was based on a complaint from a school committee member at the time, was not intentional.

But the determination of a violation led the Marlborough council to amend its rules and the 13-member Boston City Council is taking similar steps.

The proposed solution, reached after city attorneys spoke with the attorney general’s office and Marlborough officials, appoints every city councillor to every committee. Each committee currently has five to seven city councillors. Those five to seven members will remain the sole voting members of the committee. But it will allow all city councillors to attend hearings – like the myriad of budget hearings happening through June – without violating the Open Meeting Law. “It allows every member of the council to go to any hearing and ask questions,” Murphy said.

Some city councillors may feel the state attorney general’s office is overreacting in its interpretation, but there appears to be little appetite for a fight over the ruling and a scuffle that is unlikely to play out favorably for them in the press.

The wary council also has a tangled history with the Open Meeting Law: In 2008, the council acknowledged that under then-City Council President Michael Flaherty, it had violated the law by illegally gathering several times between 2003 and 2005 to discuss urban renewal plans with Boston Redevelopment Authority officials and an outbreak at a Boston University bio-laboratory. The acknowledgement came after the Appeals Court ruled against them, a victory for several local activists, including 2009 mayoral candidate Kevin McCrea, who brought a lawsuit against the council alleging the violation.

Menino names picks for advisory committee on casino

A partner at the law firm McCarter & English will be heading up Mayor Thomas Menino’s advisory committee on a Boston casino. Brian Leary, a former reporter and anchor for WCVB-TV, will join five others on the committee as City Hall is expected to negotiate a mitigation agreement with the owners of Suffolk Downs, which is seeking to open a destination resort casino in East Boston.

The other members include Lisa Calise, Menino’s former budget chief and now the chief financial officer for the Perkins School for the Blind; David Fubin of McKinsey & Company, who also serves on the Boston Green Commission; Ronald Walker II, president and founding partner of Next Street, a local merchant bank; and Sarah Barnat, vice president of development at National Development, an East Boston resident, and a former employee at Trinity Financial.

At a City Hall press conference, which was attended by Council President Murphy and East Boston Councillor Sal LaMattina, Leary told reporters he did not view himself as a gambler, but he “can see the romance and attraction” of gaming, along with the “instant gratification” that comes with it.

Leary did not express an opinion on whether there should be a citywide vote on a casino in Boston. The default, as laid out in the state law authorizing three destination resort casinos, is a vote in the ward where the casino will be located. In this case, it would be East Boston. It is possible to open the vote up to the entire city, but it would require action from the mayor, who is opposed to such a vote, and the City Council, where members are split on the issue.

“We really don’t have a say in that,” Leary said.

Asked whether he has a personal view on whether there should be a citywide vote or a ward-only vote, Leary said, “I don’t really.” He added: “This is fairly new to all of us.”

City Hall has set up a website for the committee: The City Council, through its economic development committee, is expected to tackle the issue after votes on the city budget in June.

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Captioning needed for folks with hearing loss on broadcasts on cable and on the web of the public meeting of Boston City Council