Town officials cannot debate or discuss town issues privately. Open Meeting Law (OML) requires all of these conversations to be made in formal executive or public sessions. However, according to the Attorney General’s Office, they can talk about interpersonal topics outside of public forums- e.g. to resolve conflicts between individuals or address concerns unrelated to town issues. Interpersonal discussions are specifically carved out from OML to encourage boards to work through issues in a less formal way.
That said, John Halsey, a member of Reading’s Select Board, recently filed an unfounded OML complaint against his own board regarding a private interpersonal conversation that occurred prior to the June 19th public meeting. The complaint was focused specifically on a statement that Vanessa Alvarado made about not wanting to participate in derogatory conversations about town staff and volunteers, and her choice to leave the room if it were to happen again.
On July 31, town counsel advised that the OML complaint made by Mr. Halsey was not a violation because the statement was related to an interpersonal concern. In my opinion, the crux of this matter is not a transparency issue. It was one board member standing up for personal ethics and conduct. While there have been many calls for the Select Board to be less combative publicly, it’s clear to me that Ms. Alvarado attempted to address her concerns in a permissible way with fellow board members before the public session so they could move on with town business. Unfortunately, the attempt was met with an OML complaint by Mr. Halsey.
I believe Ms. Alvarado should have been supported more strongly by her fellow board members on this issue. I was astounded to witness so much grandstanding regarding transparency and opining about what should have been done differently, instead of addressing the actions that led to the need for such a statement in the first place. We should all be upset that this issue escalated to an unfounded OML complaint resulting in town-paid legal fees and distracting us from pressing town matters. We should all expect better behavior and renewed focus going forward.