Open Meeting Law complaint filed against Amherst School Committee

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2017

AMHERST — A Town Meeting member filed an Open Meeting Law complaint Feb. 9 against three members of the Amherst School Committee, but the committee’s chairwoman, who is named in the complaint, is certain there was no violation.

Local blogger Larry Kelley, who represents Precinct 5, issued the complaint with the School Committee, town clerk and state attorney general’s office after obtaining a string of emails focused on an effort to convince Town Meeting to authorize the borrowing of $67.2 million for a co-located school to be built at the Wildwood School site.

Among the private email conversations were responses from Chairwoman Katherine Appy and members Anastasia Ordonez and Phoebe Hazzard.

“Three out of five School Committee members conspired using their private email to pass a school related article at the 1/30 special Town Meeting,” Kelley wrote in his complaint.

Appy, who has seen the complaint, said she was in touch with an attorney prior to becoming involved in community activity surrounding the Town Meeting vote.

“I feel confident that my actions and involvement, along with my colleagues, with a Town Meeting article does not constitute an OML violation,” Appy said. “This was not a matter before School Committee, but rather something before a town body.”

After voters in November narrowly approved the Proposition 2 ½ override for the project, Town Meeting that same month rejected the borrowing. The Jan. 30 vote was a second opportunity to approve the borrowing, but was defeated again when it failed to achieve a two-thirds majority.

Appy said the School Committee will respond to the complaint in open session at a future public meeting.

The School Committee’s only action on the project prior to the townwide and Town Meeting votes took place in January 2016, when it voted 4-1 in favor of the project and the accompanying redistricting of grades.

Ordonez, too, said she is sure no violation took place.

“Before I even began to vocally support this project last fall, I was careful to learn the boundaries of my elected role and official responsibilities,” Ordonez said. “I don’t believe I’ve violated any laws, nor used my position to improperly influence anyone in favor of this project.”

Kelley said in an email that the violation is clear.

“Since I find this to be such an egregious violation, which they had to be aware of, hence using their personal email accounts, I would hope the AG’s office hands down a fine for each of the three violators,” Kelley said.

According to the state’s Open Meeting Law, “As a general rule, any matter of public business on which a quorum of the public body may make a decision or recommendation is considered a matter within the jurisdiction of the public body.”

But the law also specifically exempts Town Meeting from aspects of it.

“Town Meetings, which are subject to other legal requirements, are not governed by the Open Meeting Law.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.