It has been a week since Gov. Charlie Baker’s emergency order allowed the Bay State’s thousands of city and town boards to bypass many of the provisions of the state’s Open Meeting law.
The move was designed for our new, hopefully temporary, reality. Municipal buildings are closed in response to the deepening coronavirus pandemic, and residents -- including elected and appointed officials -- are being asked to practice social distancing and stay at home as much as possible. The order, signed March 12, lets board members attend meetings via phone or video conferencing. It also allows councils, committees and boards to meet without the public in the room provided they make accommodations for citizen access through “adequate, alternative means.” For some boards, that means web-based meeting sites such as Zoom and GoToMeeting. For others, it’s streaming live on cable access TV, or using audio conferencing. To be sure, these are extraordinary times, and keeping government officials and employees safe while preventing the spread of the virus is an important priority. But so too is ensuring citizens can participate in self-governance. Using freedom bestowed to make timely decisions on the response to the pandemic can be seen as reasonable, as long as a good faith effort is made to have the public involved, and as long as the work being done relates to the vital function of government in a time of crisis.
It should not be used, say, to select a new superintendent. But that’s just what the Peabody School Committee did Wednesday night, after holding two days of interviews with six candidates. It was a decision made without a visit to the schools by the candidates. Committee members, including Mayor Ted Bettencourt, said they moved to hire Revere assistant Superintendent Joshua Vadala, a Peabody resident acquainted with members of the board, because they were worried he’d take an offer elsewhere.
Expediency doesn’t equal emergency. Committee members should be much more worried that their vote took place in an empty Higgins Middle School library. Here’s hoping officials from across the region don’t try to follow their lead. Citizen access is central to the proper functioning of government; it’s not an add-on that can be discarded when times are tough.