AG: Committee broke Open Meeting Law several times

Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2017

AMHERST — The Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee violated the state’s Open Meeting Law several times last summer during negotiations with former Superintendent Maria Geryk prior to her departure, the attorney general’s office said last week.

In a May 2 ruling on a complaint filed by Shutesbury resident Michael Hootstein, the state’s top prosecutor found, among other violations, that the board failed to disclose the topic of discussion in sufficient detail in the notices for several meetings. The meetings were found to be improperly posted because Geryk, even when she had submitted a demand letter, was not identified as the subject of the negotiations.

“By failing to disclose this detail to the public, both in its notice and in the announcement prior to convening in executive session on July 13 and July 20, the Regional School Committee violated the Open Meeting Law,” Assistant Attorney General Hanne Rush wrote.

The attorney general also said the committee failed to respond to the Open Meeting Law complaint within the required 14 business days, instead waiting seven months.

Other violations included deliberation by email and failing to follow certain procedures for convening an executive session, the attorney general’s office ruled.

Hootstein first filed a complaint Aug. 1 and again Aug. 15 as the committee was holding closed meetings amid a pending evaluation of Geryk. He later amended his complaints to argue that the committee held four illegal executive sessions in July and August while discussing a potential severance with Geryk.

Hootstein said Thursday that he believes the attorney general made a good decision.

“I do think the attorney general’s office and Assistant Attorney General Hanne Rush did a wonderful job and look forward to commenting on it more once I’ve studied the decision,” Hootstein said.

Laura Kent, who was chairwoman of the regional committee last summer when the violations occurred, said in an email Thursday night that she wasn’t surprised by the attorney general’s funding.

“I take any violation of the law very seriously and these violations were with no intention,” wrote Kent, who resigned from the committee in September.

But she adds that there was no comparison to the intensity of allegations Hootstein leveled against her, Appy and other members, and the legal costs of defending these allegations.

“I believe in citizens doing their due diligence in making sure that elected officials are doing their jobs, but the personal attacks, call for fines and the continued narrative of a conspiracy theory in this town is dismantling and taxing on elected officials,” Kent said.

Eric Nakajima, the current chairman of the regional committee, wasn’t a member of the committee at the time.

Nakajima said he encourages members to understand the law.

“We’re going to follow the law, and everyone will do so with full knowledge of the law,” Nakajima said.

One of the deliberations the attorney general’s office cited as a violation was a June 23 email sent to the committees, regarding noncompliant performance evaluations, on behalf of Kent, then-Amherst committee Chairwoman Katherine Appy and then-Union 26 committee Chairman Darius Modestow.

In her ruling, Rush determined this to be “improper as it contained their joint opinion on a matter that was pending before the committees.”

The second deliberation the office cited was a June 24 response from Appy to member Vira Douangmany Cage about a noncompliant evaluation.

“Any discussion or opinion expressed about whether an evaluation is compliant and/or is a public record should have been saved for a posted meeting,” Rush wrote.

The regional school committee did not provide its response to the complainant and to the attorney general’s office until March 27, seven months beyond the 14-day deadline “despite our office’s repeated requests,” Rush wrote.

In an email Thursday night, Appy said, “I accept the state’s ruling.”

The office denied Hootstein’s complaints that the executive sessions were held for an improper purpose, and didn’t act on allegations that Geryk and committee members prevented open-session evaluation of her work and that she had access to evaluations in advance of their becoming public.