On August 4, 2023, the Attorney General slammed Plymouth Town Officials for Open Meeting Law Violations. Read the Press Release and Decision below.
CLWC is continuing its campaign for accountability and transparency in Plymouth Town Hall by making sure the Open Meeting Law is followed and exposing backroom deals
More Open Meeting Law violations claimed
Update: Thursday, August 24, 2023: Attorney General rules January Determination 2023-136 saying twice there was no violation but it was a “close call”. This OML complaint was about the Selectboard’s failure to provide sufficient notice of the topic of its executive session held on November 29, 2022. Meeting notices must be specific enough so the public knows what the Board is talking about in the executive session. The November 29, 2022 meeting notice/agenda identified the topic only as “1000 acres” which typically is not adequate. The Attorney General ruled that “The complaint before us presents a close question” on whether this was adequate notice. It said it did not find a violation, but “we encourage the Board to include additional identifying information, such as the boundaries of the area, in the future.” See the AG Ruling here:
Update: Tuesday, August 22, 2023 Plymouth Selectboard meeting reveals backlog of almost a year of minutes
At the Selectboard’s August 22, 2023 meeting they made statement about the Attorney General’s August 4, 2023 ruling that the Selectboard and ZBA have committed numerous violations of the Open Meeting Law. The meeting notice also showed the Selectboard approved 26 sets of overdue open meeting minutes and 6 sets of executive session minutes.
The backlog of minutes shows the Selectboard has been in violation AGAIN of the Open Meeting Law. The law requires minutes to be approved within 3 meetings – the Selectboard is behind by MONTHS. All of this occurred while Betty Cavacco was chair of the Selectboard.
Deflect, defame & deny — why not comply?
The Selectboard is desperately trying to evade responsibility for four more Open Meeting Law complaints filed against them on May 15, 2023. The complaints include an illegal “executive session” secret meeting for “30 Town Wharf” and “158 Center Hill Road “. The second one is for failing to do minutes. The Open Meeting Law requires the Selectboard to respond to the complaints within two weeks. Instead of following the law and responding, Chair Betty Cavacco completely ignored the complaints. Left with no choice to get compliance, CLWC appealed to the Attorney General’s Office on August 1, 2023. The Selectboard then directed former Chair Cavacco’s hand-picked “Town Counsel” Attorney Bergeron to spend taxpayer money to attempt to evade responsibility by writing a 25 page letter on August 18, 2023. Why didn’t this new Town Counsel keep the Selectboard out of trouble in the first place?
Read CLWC’s August 22, 2023 letter to the Attorney General responding to the Town here.
Update: On August 23, 2023, the Attorney General’s Office replied to the Town’s August 18, 2023 ranting, conspiracy-laden letter about the May 15, 2023 Open Meeting Law complaints. The Attorney General rejected all of the Town’s complaints and efforts to dodge compliance. The Attorney General wrote:
August 23, 2023: Attorney General’s Office to Town Counsel
This email responds to your August 18 letter. First, please note that I am unable to formally grant an extension of time for the Plymouth Select Board to respond to the Open Meeting Law complaints. A request for an extension of time to respond must be submitted within the time for responding to the complaint (14 business days from receipt of the complaint). See 940 CMR 29.05(5)(b). However, the Select Board is absolutely still welcome to submit any information or argument it wishes our office to consider. I see that you submitted a response to two of the complaints today, which we will add to the corresponding files, and you are welcome to submit any additional relevel information. Based on current complaint volumes and workload, I am confident AAG Kilcoyne and I will not be reviewing these complaints for at least another month, as you request, and likely not for closer to three months or longer.
The Open Meeting Law does not contain any requirements about eligibility or standing to file an Open Meeting Law complaint; any person may file a complaint. The complainant need not be disinterested (nor need they have any direct interest or stake in the matter). Additionally, we do not consider an administrative Open Meeting Law complaint filed with our office (as opposed to an action under G.L. c. 30A, § 23(f)) to be litigation or akin to litigation. We do not treat the administrative OML complaint process as an adversarial proceeding between two parties; rather, the complainant files a complaint to bring a possible OML violation to our office’s attention, and we then investigate the matters raised in the complaint. We keep the complainant apprised of the status of our review and send the complainant a copy of the final determination letter so they are aware of the outcome, but the complainant is not a “party” to an OML complaint review and has no right to judicial review of a complaint resolution under G.L. c. 30A, § 23(d).
I hope this information is helpful.
Carrie Benedon (she/her/hers)
Assistant Attorney General
Director, Division of Open Government
Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General
The Town’s August 18, 2023 letter to the Attorney General is so defamatory, inaccurate and misleading we will not post it here. In it the Town Counsel makes excuses for Cavacco’s refusal to address the May 15, 2023 complaints. He asks for an “extension.” The rambling, conspiracy-theory letter written with Town taxpayer money is just the old tactic of “deflect, defame and deny” when you know you are caught doing an illegal act. Why not just comply?
Demanding a complete investigation by the Attorney General
The taxpayer’s money would have been better spent on coming into compliance with the Open Meeting Law instead of writing a rant to the Attorney General. CLWC is asking the Attorney General to use its powers under the Open Meeting Law, General Laws Chapter 30A, Sections 18-25 to get to conduct a full investigation to get to the bottom of what is going on. The public deserves total transparency and accountability from all boards, committees and staff in Town Hall.
CLWC Press Release on Attorney General’s Ruling against Plymouth Officials
Plymouth, MA (August 11, 2023): Attorney General Slams Town Officials Over Open Meeting Law Violations
The Attorney General (AG) of Massachusetts, Division of Open Government has ruled that the Town of Plymouth Selectboard and Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) violated the state’s Open Meeting Law in multiple ways when they held a joint meeting on November 15, 2022 in “executive session” out of public view to discuss a “Development Agreement” with Claremont Plymouth LLC. Claremont was seeking ZBA approval for 348 apartments at the Colony Place mall at the time. Based on the Development Agreement discussed illegally in the secret meeting, the ZBA granted the project a special permit under the Zoning Bylaws.
The Attorney General’s ruling is a harsh rebuke to the Selectboard’s leadership under former chair Betty Cavacco and current ZBA chair Michael Main. The August 4, 2023 ruling states that, “in light of the number and breadth of Open Meeting Law violations” Selectboard and ZBA must undergo Open Meeting Law training with the AG’s office and certify that they have done so within 95 days. The AG ordered the Selectboard and ZBA to come into “immediate and future compliance” with the law and take other remedial steps.
The local group Community Land & Water Coalition (CLWC) brought the Open Meeting Law complaints when the public learned the Selectboard and ZBA jointly met in secret in November 2022 to discuss a deal with Claremont about affordable housing and water. The Town’s expert report in October 2022 said the Town’s water supply is inadequate for the project. The Town officials negotiated to make a deal to allow the project to happen. In March, after the ZBA approved a special permit based on the deal discussed in the illegal meeting, residents appealed the ZBA permit to court.
Selectboard and ZBA’s Secret Water Deal
The Selectboard’s Development Agreement provides that in exchange for a special permit from the ZBA, Claremont will pay the Town about $2 million for a new water pump for the West Plymouth Water District. What the Town officials did not disclose is that Claremont will actually pay about $700,000 because the Selectboard and ZBA agreed to waive about $1.3 million in building and reduce the affordable housing trust fees by 23%.
According to the Attorney General’s investigation, Derek Brindisi, Plymouth Town Manager reported that the “primary purpose of the joint executive session” was for Brindisi and the ZBA “to present information to the Board regarding negotiations the ZBA was engaged in with Claremont about the possibility of Claremont making a payment in lieu of building affordable house units.”
The AG’s ruling stated that the joint meeting to discuss “affordable housing” and the water deal was not a proper purpose for “executive session” under the Open Meeting Law. The Law states that public bodies can only meet in executive session for narrow, limited purposes, such as discussions of personnel matters. Negotiating behind closed doors and meeting in secret to make sure developers can build their projects is not a legitimate “executive session” topic.
Town Officials Thwart Purpose of Open Meeting Law
The purpose of the Open Meeting Law is to promote democracy and ‘government in the sunshine’ by requiring public bodies to follow regulations enacted to ensure transparency and accountability. Public bodies such as the Selectboard and ZBA must give specific notice of the subject of their meetings so the public knows what they are meeting about, they must conduct meetings in public except in limited circumstances, and must take and maintain accurate meeting minutes. The AG’s Decision found the Selectboard and ZBA violated the law by meeting in secret, not giving proper public notice, and not creating minutes of their meetings.
Veil of Secrecy
“We are pulling back the veil of secrecy in the way the Selectboard and ZBA operate. Making secret deals with private developers is an egregious abuse of the Open Meeting Law,” said Meg Sheehan of CLWC. “The Selectboard, ZBA, Conservation Commission and Planning Board are showing a clear bias in favor of developers. Making backroom deals like this harms the public interest in clean water and a sustainable environment. Secret meetings, rubber stamp permits and secret deals will not be tolerated,” said Sheehan.
How secrecy harms our community
Pamela Magnarelli of the nearby neighborhood said, “As one of the residents who will be aggrieved by the new Claremont development, it was very disheartening to learn that the Town Selectboard and ZBA were violating Open Meeting Laws during negotiations with Claremont. Discussions concerning development in Plymouth must always include public input, especially as it relates to the impact on the natural environment. Improper executive sessions that only look at a developers’ point of view are detrimental to all Plymouth residents. We don’t need to go back any further than this current year to see how climate change is impacting Plymouth, the United States and the world. Plymouth residents need to have the opportunity to hear and evaluate Town proposals and express concerns on how the Claremont project (or any project) is going to affect water quality and quantity, pollution, wildlife, and density for a part of West Plymouth that has seen enormous residential and commercial growth in the past 2 years,” Magnarelli said.
For more information, visit Community Land & Water Coalition’s website.