Saturday, May 22, 2010

Blame the blogosphere

So five local school committee chairs have officially requested in writing the District Attorney create guidelines about how and when a blog may or may not violate the Open Meeting Law--key word being "Open".

The irony simply abounds. The joint letter apparently was the idea of Shutesbury School Committee Chair Michael DeChiara, you know the guy who recently got the state legislature to pass a new law allowing towns to withdraw from school unions.

Shutesbury apparently had a beef with a shared Superintendent hiring a pricipal for only one year when most folks wanted them to get three. The issue caused Shutesbury to rethink Union 28 which shares the expenses of a Super between Leverett, Shutesbury, Erving, Wendell and New Salem.

So how is this any different than Amherst considering a withdrawal from Union 26 with Pelham where Amherst funds 94% of expenses and only has a 50% say in administration?

But back to the blogosphere. The issue of Amherst withdrawing from Union 26 has gone from obscure non-issue to raging controversy mainly because of the discussion on Catherine Sanderson's school committee blog.

The other School Committee chairs wonder if perhaps some Anons posting comments could be School Committee members thus potentially bringing together a quorum discussing something outside a posted public meeting.

Forgetting for a moment that a blog is public, these Chairs are not showing much faith in their fellow School Committee members if they honestly believe an elected public official would cowardly cower behind a cloak of anonymity.

The next question asks about the propriety of comment moderation where the blog owner could slant the discussion by nixing opposing comments. So it's the old "damned if she does, damned if she doesn't" routine?

What's a blogger to do? You can't allow Anon comments because it could be cowardly elected officials in disguise and you can't moderate comments because you could censor them. Hmm....

Gotta love the part about "Every committee has mechanisms and policies for making sure that its discourse is appropriate and civil," suggesting ways should be found to extend that control to a blog. Sounds like the South Hadley School Committee chair who was recently chastised by the ACLU for censoring public comments he did not find "appropriate and civil."

Another irony is that Irv Rhodes, Amherst School Committee Chair, currently in the center of the storm on the Union 26 issue and as a direct result of what he considered disrespectful behavior on the part of Regional Chair Farshid Hajir and Union 26 Chair Tracey Farnham, came up with a "Pledge" that he made to fellow Amherst committee members.

The opening one states:

"To be open, honest and transparent about any and all matters that come before the Amherst School Committee and keep you informed about any events that directly or indirectly involve the work of the Amherst School Committee."

Mr Rhodes, however, signed the letter sent to the District Attorney without giving Catherine Sanderson--the obvious target--a common courtesy heads up call.

And that official letter pretty much constitutes a (secret) joint meeting of five School Committees. Physician heal thyself!


Shutesbury's Internet chat room
PDF of letter to DA is at bottom of "discussion". And notice the only two folks who chime in are also Shutesbury School Committee members thus, with DeChiara (if he was still online) makes for a quorum.

The Bully covers Shutesbury School Committee Chair Michael DeChiara's crusade

42 comments:

Rick said...

I don’t think this is any kind of attempt to shut down SC member blogs, as the letter says this:

“Given this it seems reasonable that a public official can host a blog and can post her/his comments to blogs. These acts are seemingly an exercise of her/his rights of expression. In addition, we support the appropriate use of technology tools if they are able to further communication among public officials and with the public that they serve. We believe that these tools have the potential to open up public access to information if done correctly within the law and with clear guidelines.”

I am glad it’s being looked into, because it really does need a ruling.

But this one is strange:

“3. If on a blog, there are multiple members of a committee who are identified and who have either posted and/or commented on the same blog item/issue, it seems possible, that even if a quorum is not actively participating, a serial exchange may occur if other committee members read the blog; thereby learning the positions of those members who are actively participating.”

Simply reading of a position is a violation of open meeting law? I don’t think so. Otherwise if 3 members of the SC wrote letters to the Gazette/Bulletin with a position, it would be a violation, and I doubt that is a violation and also all that lucrative political advertising revenue for the Bulletin would do down the drain.

:-)

On my blog you have to register to post, so I know that there are no other SC members posting to it (because none has registered). That is one way to be squeaky clean on a blog with open meeting law. I guess if an SC member were to register I would have to block them, so as not to block just one but not another.

I am posting on Catherine’s blog so that makes two other there. There has not been a third (quorum) that I know of (unless of course there is an anonymous one).

I think it would be great if it were legal for there to be a blog where all SC members (and only SC members) posted. SC meetings alone are not enough to have a decent conversation about all the issues. Blogs are great for that; a continuous open meeting.

The key points of open meeting law are:

1. Public meetings only.
2. Must give 48 hours notice of a meeting.

Blogs are about as public as it gets. How do you give a notice for a blog, which is 24/7?

LarryK4 said...

Oh, I think you're being a tad naive.

This is a direct assault on Catherine Sanderson--just as Principal Mark Jackson's public bullying was a few SC meetings back.

The DA has her hands full at the moment with the school related tragedy in South Hadley and she is not running for reelection and her office will no longer be in charge of Open Meeting Law come July 1.

This request is, quite frankly, stupid.

curious blog patron said...

Larry:

Why will the DA's office no longer be in charge of the open meeting law as of July 1st?

Anonymous said...

Oh, come on Larry!

You complained of an open meeting violation when
3 select board members (2 being members of/liaisons to one committee, another being a liaison to a second committee) inadvertently attended a joint meeting of those committees.

I admire your brashness, even when you're ignorant of your own ignorance, but here you're not just being ironic, you're being hypocritical
(note: I am describing your particular behavior here, not labeling you)!

And by the way, I agree with you that it is ridiculous to claim the blog postings violate OML, but it was equally ridiculous for you to charge OML violations in the other case(s), even though you (occasionally) got an assistant DA friend of yours to agree with you (her legal reasoning "puzzled" our attorneys, and perhaps, now that fines are part of the picture,
OML findings will be adjudicated more rigorously in the future).

- You know whom

LarryK4 said...

The Attorney General takes it over.

The theory being it will makes enforcement more consistent (I'm not holding my breath.)

LarryK4 said...

Anon 8:20 PM (and no I don't know who the Hell you are and really don't care.)

On that particular case the D.A. agreed with me and reprimanded the Select Board.

And no, there are no fines attached to individuals who violate (even repeatedly) Open Meeting Law. Thus the new law is no better than the old.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing up that point (sort of), but isn't the committee subject to the fine, not the individuals. And how could "individuals" be fined? If 3 members of a 5-member committee showed up, would you fine all 3 members, or only the third, or only the individual(s) with whom you disagreed? (Here it seems you're not ignorant of your ignorance.... ;-)

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, and if the committee is fined then they simply pass it on to the taxpayers who fund the committee.

I would fine any individual who partakes in the meeting.

Anonymous said...

Please define "partakes" for the purposes of imposing your proposed OML violation? Are you
suggesting that some who attend also "partake"
but some might not?

I maintain that either you'll see that your proposal is unworkable, and perhaps come to agree that saying 3 members of a 5 member board happen to attend - or even partake in - a *publicly* meeting posted meeting of (an)other committee(s) is an OML violation, is just as ridiculous as saying a blog where these 3 members post and respond to each others posts is an OML violation. Please explain the difference?!

In both cases the 3 members are communicating publicly, and in both cases they cannot take any action (as their own committee) until such time as
a properly posted public meeting of their own committee is held.

Anonymous said...

> Anon 8:20 PM (and no I don't know who the Hell you are

The insinuating tone and "Your friend" style signature reeks of Rob Kusner

"our attorneys" = Kopelman & Paige

Anonymous said...

Larry,

How can you, of all people, be outraged when someone else does what you've been doing for years: play politics with the Open Meeting Law?

You're right on one point: this would not be happening if kindly Mr. Hood were the only blogger on the scene opining on education issues.

Rich Morse

LarryK4 said...

Hey one point here one point there pretty soon I can be a prosecutor.

Big difference is that I'm not part of the system, as opposed to these School Committee Chairs.

Yeah, I forgot about Hr. Hood's blog, right up there in daily hits with the Town Manager I bet.

Anonymous said...

And why are we now disparaging Mr. Hood? Because he is unfailing calm, courteous, reflective and deeply interested in Amherst SC receiving the best education possible?

Wow, you gotta love Amherst politics and the Amherst blogosphere. Actually, I do enjoy the Amherst blogosphere...but some comments just discourage the heck out of me.

LarryK4 said...

Why is that "disparaging"? Simply an observation that is most likely a fact (although unlike Catherine and I, he does not have an open public sitemeter so it's hard to tell.)

"unfailing calm, courteous, reflective " could also describe Air America and we see how well they did in the talk radio world.

I assume folks who come here are adults and know that the blogosphere is still a little bit like the Wild Wild West.

As President Truman once observed about dealing with heat...

Rick said...

Larry has been plenty disparaging of me at times, but I agree this is not one of those times.

Yes I would guess “hits” to my blog are way less than hits to Larry’s, Catherine’s, etc. For the week ending yesterday visits to my blog were 292 and absolute unique visitors (which is what matters) was 129 (from Google Analytics).

Although maybe not so much lower, as Larry’s Sitemeter says visits for last 7 days were around the same, with peak of 328 on Thursday. Sitemeter apparently doesn’t say what unique visitors were.

BTW a “hit” technically means a file got downloaded, which means nothing; unique visitors is what matters.

LarryK4 said...

Actually Tuesday was the highest at 335.

And if you check location you will note the vast majority of visits (which is why I can figure out "unique" fairly easily) come from outside Amherst, although yes, some Amherst folks are probably using servers located outside of town.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hood is a kind man, a true gentleman. And it appears that he has a base of support that is different than the other four SC members AND perhaps a slightly different philosophy about his new job, i.e. more interested in consensus. Whether he likes it or not, his support is crucial to broad public acceptance of Amherst SC decisions. I, for one, am looking to him to see where he comes out on much of this weighty stuff.

It's clear that his blog is trying to do something just a little different than Catherine's blog, which is completely his right. Both blogs are, I would submit, a net (no pun intended) force for good in this community.

But I doubt that his blog is what prompted the letter to the District Attorney. He's absolutely right: we do need a ruling in this area and maybe that will stop the nonsense. I doubt that we are going back to the old "ignorance is bliss" state of affairs.

There's a reason why there are so many anonymous posters on the Net where it is permitted: because it's in public!!! Thus, I really doubt that the Open Meeting Law is in play here.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that these SCs are merely consulting with an "attorney" to answer some questions. In this case, it is at no cost to the tax payers. Why all the fuss?

LarryK4 said...

Because it is a direct attempt to intimidate and silence Catherine Sanderson and indirectly an assault on the First Amendment and the blogosphere--two things exceedingly important to me personally.

Anonymous said...

"Because it is a direct attempt to intimidate and silence..."



Hmmm, now where have we seen that before?

Ed said...

The nice thing about going to CPAC - other than meeting my friends who have jobs down to DC, was that I got to meet a lot of interesting people.

Including the people who brought the "Citizens United" Case to the US Supreme Court. And I really don't think it matters a whole lot what Massachusetts law says because the First Amendment reign supreme and SCOTUS will say that Catherine has the right to say anything she damn well pleases...

Anonymous said...

I rarely find myself in agreement with Ed - but I do agree with him here. Catherine does have a right to say anything she damn well pleases.

What she does not have the right to do is censor what is appearing on her blog. If she has the right to say what she damn well please, so do the rest of us. I have sent in a few posts that did not slam anyone (purportedly the only reason she says she will no post a particular blog post) that Catherine did not post. The posts are things that she would not agree with.

I must say she has posted about 98% of posts I have sent in so its not alot of censoring. But there is some minor censoring going on. And I do not think that is appropriate.

LarryK4 said...

Actually I think she does have a right to censor whatever she damn well pleases on her blog. Key words being "her blog."

If you don't like that, start your own. They are free.

A.N.W. said...

Larry says "Actually I think she does have a right to censor whatever she damn well pleases on her blog. Key words being "her blog."

So which one is it? public or private?

Anonymous said...

S-T-A-R-T your own blog is you don't like what's said, or not said.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

I will add three quick points here.

First, I think this is 100% an attempt to censor my blog (and Rick, I'm sorry you got pulled into this because I don't think they are nearly as concerned about your blog), and I think that is really sad. And given the rules on open meeting law (must be in public, must be posted), blogs clearly are fine: they are occurring in public (even more so than a meeting, in that they are permanent records), and the 48 hour meeting rule for posting was specifically designed to maintain the public's right to see the deliberation -- which again, they can see anytime "live" on a blog. No one is suggesting that the SC stop meeting and just discuss things and vote by blog (which then would be problematic). And I agree with Rick that blogs provide a great forum for communication. As is occurring here, on my blog, and on Rich's blog.

Second, the DA is very unlikely to issue a ruling on this -- given that there is no allegation of a "crime" occurring (or a violation of open meeting law). The DA is quite busy investigating actual crimes that have occurred, and I will be surprised if they spend the time creating an advisory legal ruling at the request of 5 SC members. That being said, if they were to issue a ruling saying "blogs are a violation of open meeting law," I think the ACLU would have a pretty quick response.

Anonymous said...

Rich has a blog?

LarryK4 said...

A+W:

All these blogs are privately owned but (in my case and Catherine's) exceedingly public.

Yes, if the town had an official blog on the town website and paid an employee to update it then it would be a public blog owned by the public and more stringent rules would apply.

For instance, (Mother) Mary Streeter owns the antiquated Yahoo Amherst Town Meeting listserve which by the way has a quorum of Town Meeting members subscribed.

She banished me from the list a few years back for calling Anne Awad (anyone remember her?) a "Czar." She was perfectly within her rights to do so.

And no Mr. Morse, I did not even bother to complain to state authorities because I knew it was privately owned and she can do whatever she damn well pleases.

A.N.W. said...

When a privately owned blog is also privately "administered" (or censored), and where the administrator exercises her power to show/not show comments and decide which ones can/cannot be displayed, I think the blog can no longer claim to be a public blog.

LarryK4 said...

Hmm...So then I guess you do not consider the venerable Daily Hampshire Gazette or Springfield Republican to be public either?

Because they can pick and choose their 'Letters To The Editor' any way they please.

A.N.W. said...

Of course that's true. Does anyone believe that newspapers, tv stations etc do not have some private and/or corporate interests? (think: GE, fox, etc). I guess the point is that they also don't hold publicly elected office simultaneously. Usually.

But are you also saying that you think a privately-run blog by an individual is like a newspaper?

interesting....

Anonymous said...

You all have too much time on your hands. What's next? How many angels fit on the head of a pin? Catherine, you are not that important. It's just the School Committee. Save the paranoia for your White House appointment.

LarryK4 said...

A+W you really have not been paying attention over however long you have been coming here.

Of course I consider a privately run blog to be "like a newspaper."

Last I looked there are no federal, state or local certification requirements for the term "journalist" or starting up a "newspaper."

But in Massachusetts you are required to take a 1000 hour+ course and pass a state exam in order to call yourself a "hairdresser."

Yeah, go figure.

Anonymous said...

The presumption of the School Committee Chairs' letter and the detailed questions it asks seems to be that there is someone at the DA's office with her/his feet up on the desk, making paperclip chains, surfing the web, shooting wadded-up balls of copier paper into the wastepaper basket across the room for fun and entertainment, someone who can then immediately jump and do their bidding.

I bet that the DA takes a flier on the golden opportunity to pronounce definitively into the cosmos on all things blogosphere, partially because the Open Meeting Law is not even remotely on point, despite the strained attempt to suggest that it is, and partially because they have plenty of other more important things to do.

Wait for the silence.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, not to interrupt the silence but I could not agree more.

Anonymous said...

Last I looked there are no federal, state or local certification requirements for the term "journalist" or starting up a "newspaper."

That's because hairdressers have to have skill, unlike bloggers.

Anonymous said...

Does Rick and Rich have a blog? where?

LarryK4 said...

Rick Hood, recently elected Amherst School Committee does:
http://amherstschooltalk.org/blog/1

Rich Morse, the Grumpy Prosecutor, does not. He is just a frequent contributor to what some Anons refer to as the "Amherst blogosphere" which I find to be a slightly weird term.

Anonymous said...

Grumpy Prosecutor here:

Thanks for clearing that up quickly, Larry. I don't need people googling me and finding newspaper stories on all the criminal cases I've lost over the years.

Very important distinction:
Rick Hood is a good man, distinguished by measured speech and a spirit of inquiry.

Rich Morse is annoying.

Those final consonants can create confusion.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

I heartily disagree; both Rick and Rich add much to discussions and I respect each of them, even when I don't agree with a particular point.



S.L.S.

Anonymous said...

It wasn't just that the Super gave our principal a one-year conditional contract when the other principals in Union 28 got the usual 3 year contracts. Michael took a dislike to the Superintendent right from the get-go. Didn't want her, didn't vote for her, has been on her case ever since. As it turns out, this dislike is justified and most of us parents in town would like nothing better than to see her go somewhere else. However, to actually write and push through an amendment to allow schools to pull out from a Union is a bit like throwing out the baby with the bath water, in this case anyway. If Michael is angling to have Shutesbury Elementary leave Union 28 and take up with Amherst he might find that there are quite a large number of Shutesbury parents and teachers who will try to convince him otherwise, given the hornets nest the Amherst/Pelham situation is turning into which doesn't bode well for any "outsider's" future with Amherst. Better to just work on getting rid of the current Union 28 superintendent and find someone not only more compatible with our town, but who also appreciates our principal who happens to be terrific on all counts.

Anonymous said...

As an Amherst resident, I gotta say that Shutesbury would be out of their mind to try to link up with Amherst. Who needs the drama? Who needs the egos of the Amherst SC members.