Monday, December 21, 2009

Mayor's Committee has been violating the Open Meeting Law for at least 10 years

Applying to be on the School Committee

As a child of a divorced family who attended public schools in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Vermont I have always been appreciative of the free education provided me in our country, and I have volunteered in the Boston Public Schools, and spoken out strongly in support of our public schools. When my campaign for Mayor was over, many people suggested I apply for the school committee and Mayor Menino had told me that he was interested in working with me, in particular in regards to our trade school in Boston. During the campaign, Superintendent Carol Johnson had pulled me aside and thanked me for my strong words in support of public school education. I was hoping to work with the school department to make our schools better.

There are two open positions on the school committee this year. There was a deadline in early November at which it was announced that there was only one applicant, and the City extended the deadline for applicants until November 30, 2009. The application is fairly involved and it took a few hours and a number of pages to answer all the questions.

The applications were to be emailed to a Nancy Lo, who works for the City of Boston.

I sent my application in along with my resume and asked Ms. Lo to acknowledge that she had received it. She emailed back within a couple hours acknowledging she had received my application. I wrote back asking her what the process would be for selection. I didn’t get a reply.

Over the next couple of weeks when I had some free time I tried to find out what the process was. I checked the City of Boston website and the School Department website and there was no information about the Boston School Committee Nominating Panel or the process for selection, or the criteria for selecting people for the School Committee. I called the Mayor’s office to try and talk to the Mayor about how I’d like to work with him to improve the schools. Mary Pierce from his office called me back and said that the Mayor didn’t speak with any applicant because he didn’t want to influence the process, and she assured me that the process would be transparent, with emphasis on the word transparent. I called the Superintendent’s office and the School Committee’s office and neither of them knew anything about the process. I went to the Mayor’s office to ask them if they knew anything about the process and they told me to ask the school department. I left a voice message for Nancy Lo that was never returned.

By December 14, 2009 I still hadn’t heard from Ms. Lo and I knew that the two new school committee members needed to be chosen by the beginning of the year and I was wanting to make travel plans for Christmas but wanted to be around in case there was an interview to be at, so I sent another email to Ms. Lo asking her to again let me know what the process was. I also had my assistant look up the State law governing the Boston School committee since it didn’t appear as if anyone that worked for the City of Boston knew anything about it. (The Law can be found here: http://archives.lib.state.ma.us/actsResolves/1991/1991acts0108.pdf)

According to the State Law there are to be 13 people on the Boston School Committee Nominating Panel and there are specific details as to how these individuals shall be appointed. Four are appointed by the Mayor, one by the teachers’ union, one by the Department of Education, one on a rotating basis with the Private Industry Council, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, etc. Every October they are to get together, elect a chairperson who is to submit a list of all the members to the City Clerk and they “shall meet in public for the sole purpose of deliberating upon, hearing public comment with respect to, and finally selecting a list of nominees” to be presented to the Mayor. They are to suggest 3 to 5 people for each open position to the Mayor.

I had some free time on Wednesday afternoon the 16th of December, and I still hadn’t heard back from Nancy Lo so I went to the City Clerk’s office around 3 pm. I asked for the list of the Boston School Committee Nominating Panel and a nice woman gave me a copy of the 2008 list which was the most recent one available. I then asked for the public notice of their meetings and minutes from their meetings for the last three years. There were none, and they had no knowledge of any meetings or any minutes. I asked to speak to Rosario Salerno, the City Clerk, and she said they don’t keep track of any boards like that.

I looked at the list of the people on the committee and noticed one person worked right around the corner on the 6th floor at City Hall so I went there first to ask him about the meetings and the process but he wasn’t in. I then picked another name from the list and got a person on the phone. I identified myself, and that I was trying to find out about process for selection, and asked if they had held a meeting yet. He said that they had held a meeting but didn’t want to comment on my application, and he suggested I talk to Nancy Lo. After speaking with this somewhat evasive gentleman, my curiosity became less about my chances of actually getting on the school committee and more about the dubiousness of the selection process. I said that I had been trying to get in touch with Nancy Lo but had been unsuccessful. I asked when they held their meeting and he said he didn’t remember. When I asked whether it had been “in spring, in summer?” he asked me to hold a minute and came back and told me that they had met on December 10, 2009 at City Hall and that they had completed their assignment. I thanked him for his time and said I’d try and find out more information from Nancy Lo.

It seemed at this point that an Open Meeting Law violation may have occurred and between 4:30 and 5 pm I left a message at the District Attorney’s office, which is the entity that is supposed to enforce the O.M.L., asking them to call.

At 5:08 pm that day I received an email from Nancy Lo:

Hi:

The selection process is still ongoing. The Nominating Panel has reviewed the applications and have made our recommendations to the Mayor. His office will be continuing the review process and will be setting up any future meetings.

Thank you for your interest in the Boston School Committee.


The next morning, Thursday, December 17, I called Dot Joyce, the Mayor’s spokesperson and told her that I suspected that the School Committee Nominating Panel had not followed the proper procedure in nominating people. I suggested that the Mayor might not want to be involved in a process that wasn’t transparent. She told me that the Mayor has nothing to do with the process, he just selects from the names that the committee selects for him.

I made a few calls and left messages to other members of the committee to try and find out if I had made the cut or not. During the course of the work day I heard back from a number of the people on the committee. They were all extremely nice, freely answered my questions and clearly were just citizens who were volunteering and doing their civic duty who had no idea what the rules laid out by the State Law were. They had all been on the committee for years, some up to 10 years. They all referred me back to Nancy Lo who clearly was the organizing and directing force of the committee.

Through these conversations I ascertained that there had been a large number of applicants for the School Committee, that the applications had been received by Ms. Lo and sent out electronically to the members for their review. She received their feedback and narrowed the list down to 11 people, who were invited to the hearing on December 10, 2009 to be interviewed at which time they narrowed that group down to two sets of three people for the Mayor to choose from. I found out that they had not taken public comment for at least 10 years as the law requires. No one knew anything about voting for a chairperson, the committee has always been run by Nancy Lo.

One committee member told me that it is “not a fair process” and that committee members “dare not say anything” because if they disagree with Menino that they will soon be gone. I also took the time to look up Nancy Lo and found out that she has been with Menino for years, previously running the elections department and named by Boston Magazine as one of the most powerful women in Boston. She currently works for the Inspectional Services Department and makes more than $100,000 a year. On Thursday afternoon I sent a FOIA request by email to Nancy Lo for information about the process.

That evening I talked to my wife Clara who is infinitely smarter than I about what I should do about these types of things. I clearly could file an Open Meeting Lawsuit which if filed within 21 days of the December 10, 2009 non-public meeting would rescind the action the group took. But what was clear in speaking to the members of the committee is that there was no knowledge that anything they were doing was anything other than their civic duty, unlike the Boston City Council which was willfully trying to exclude the public from their decision making process. I didn’t want to drag good, decent citizens into something not of their making. It seemed to make sense that since the Mayor hadn’t made his final decision yet to just ask the committee to hold the process in accordance with the State Law.

The next morning, Friday, I called Dot Joyce again and let her know that I was now convinced that the Open Meeting Law had been violated, probably for at least a decade, but that I’d like to work with the administration to rectify the situation without wasting valuable time and resources. I asked her if she knew the person in charge of this: Nancy Lo. She said she had heard of her, but didn’t think she had met her. I told her that I hadn’t been able to get in touch with her, but perhaps she or the Mayor could get in touch with her, and let her know that the State Law had not been followed. I let her know I’d been working with the District Attorney on this matter as well.

I spoke with the District Attorney’s office again and they agreed that a “do over” that followed the law was probably a reasonable thing to do since no final decision had been taken. They said they would confer and get in touch with the City.

Although the Mayor doesn’t believe in using computers, and City Hall doesn’t believe in voicemail, one thing the City does believe in, like any totalitarian regime, is Caller ID because that way they know who is calling and whether they should take the call or not.

I decided one last time to try and call Nancy Lo, but first to block my number so she wouldn’t know that it was me who was calling. At 11:00 a.m. I called and amazingly enough I got her. She confirmed that I had not made the cut to make the interview process. She said she had received my FOIA request and was already working with the City Law Department to get a response to me within 10 days.

I asked her if she had read the State Law and she said she had “reviewed it from time to time”. I asked if she had ever held a public process with public comment and she said she would “refrain from comment.” I asked if she had been elected as chairperson and when, and she said she had been “elected in private amongst ourselves” about a month ago. I asked if she had ever met with Dot Joyce and she said she had. I read the part of the State Law to her about holding a public meeting and asked if she had held an Open Meeting. I asked her to please hold the process in accordance with the State Law which she said she had looked at from time to time.

When I got back to my office after 5 pm on Friday there was a message from the District Attorney’s office that next Tuesday there would be a public meeting of the Boston School Committee Nominating Panel at City Hall and that it was posted on the City’s website.

Here is hoping that the City understands that the entity that makes the laws should obey the laws; and, that asking tough questions of people in an open, public forum is more than appropriate when said people will control an $800 million dollar budget and how our children will be taught. It is an important process that the public deserves to participate in. My hope is that we may end up with people on the Boston School Committee who are not only qualified and passionate about our schools, but are also not afraid to ask questions to make sure the schools are the best they can be.

It is too bad that I had to go through of all this just because the chairperson of the committee wouldn’t answer a simple email asking what the decision making process was for over two weeks. But in the end, it will have been a worth-while endeavor if in the future, the process is transparent and in accordance with the law.

3 comments:

Mary said...

Kevin,
thanks for all your work trying to make City government more open and honest.

Jed H said...

I knew Nancy a bit when I worked for the city 10 years ago. I always had the impression that she was trusted by the Mayor to carry out unpleasant tasks.

She was sent into Elections basically to root out the bad apples. They hated her but she got the job done. (Prior to that, for ex. there was an elections employee caught using the voting machines in a side biz doing elections for unions & the like.)

She was sent into ISD following a whole series of ethical lapses that made the papers. Her main project has been to computerize (!) ISD. As I'm sure you know, they just finally inaugurated online building permit apps.

I'm not sure why the School Committee would need an enforcer like Lo, given that there have always been plenty of Menino shills lurking around there anyway.

Michael Pahre said...

I just posted a comment over at this other post that I believe that the OML does not apply to this nominating committee.