Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Board of Trustees still face criticism for violating Open Meeting Law

By Michelle Williams

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As the University of Massachusetts administration searches for a new chancellor, it continues to face criticism for its search for a new president last year. The University of Massachusetts is facing scrutiny from State Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office, after University officials admitted throwing out records from the closed meeting search for a new president last year.

On March 1, 2010, former UM President Jack Wilson announced he would retire at end of the 2010-2011 academic year. Three weeks later, the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees established a search committee to review candidates and choose finalists to be considered by the Board of Trustees.

“The Search Committee consisted of 21 members and included trustees, University faculty, students and former trustees,” said documents from the State Attorney’s office. During the summer of 2011, Coakley’s office initiated an investigation of the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees “based on a reasonable cause to believe that the Board had violated the Open Meeting Law” in regards to the appointment of the new president. In August, Coakley’s office found that “the Board violated the Open Meeting Law throughout the presidential search process,” according to a statement. “The violations were wide ranging and serious.” Over four months after the order from the Attorney General, the University released the notes from the meetings.

The minutes included summaries from six of the University of Massachusetts Presidential Search Committee meetings.

Though the minutes were released, the documentation of the meetings is limited, with the hours of meetings reduced to 17 pages. Notes from the first meeting of the Presidential Search Committee consist of 253 words.

An article on Boston.com said: “Robert Connolly, a spokesperson for the University, blamed a secretary for throwing the meeting notes away in the spring, but he said UMass General Counsel Deirdre Heatwole defended the practice as appropriate under the state’s public records law, because the notes had already been used to draft official minutes.”

A spokesperson from the Attorney General’s office, Brad Puffer, told the Globe in response that the minutes releases may not meet the requirements from Coakley.

“Based on our initial review, we have concerns about the sufficiency of the minutes that were released,’’ he told the Globe. “We are reviewing this matter to determine whether they are in compliance with our order.’’

During that first meeting it was also announced that the meetings would be closed sessions. “I have determined that our conducting initial screening of applicants in an open meeting will have a detrimental effect on obtaining qualified applicants for this position,” said UMass Board Chairman James Karam in the notes the University released. Karam continued, “In addition, by going into executive session we will be able to protect the privacy or other rights of applicants. The Committee will not reconvene in open session.”

Following this announcement, the Board voted unanimously to hold all search committee meetings behind closed doors, and “Chair Karam asked that all visitors leave the room,” according to the minutes.

The following meetings were written as summaries, explaining what was discussed, yet not who said what, including the interviews with finalists.

On Jan. 13, 2010, the trustees interviewed the three finalists for president in a closed door session.

Following the session, the Board of Trustees publicly voted in favor of appointing Robert Caret president of the University of Massachusetts schools. “A committee can screen candidates in executive sessions, yet when candidates become finalists, those interviews must be public, except in discussions of character and reputation,” according to the state’s Open Meeting Laws.

Due to the legality of the vote, Coakley could have invalidated the decision and reprimanded the board with a fine. Instead, in light of the search for a new chancellor, ordered all board members to undergo Open Meeting Law training and release all meeting notices and meeting minutes created during the six meetings that the search committee held behind closed doors.

“They demonstrate a pressing need for additional education and training with respect to the duties and obligations imposed by the law,” said Coakley’s office.

MassLive.com reported: “Robert J. Ambrogi, a lawyer and member of the state’s Open Meeting Law Advisory Commission, said Coakley should have nullified the trustees’ appointment of Caret to send a message of the gravity of the law.”

Michelle Williams can be reached at [email protected]

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