The Complaint About The 2018 Private Meeting Re SA Farms

This is a response to a comment on my Facebook candidate page (see link at right) under my June 25 7:41AM post relating to support for single tax rate. Response posted here because it is too long to fit into a Facebook comment.

Hi Laura,

On Tue July 17 2018, the Town facilitated a private meeting held at the Northborough Free Library between MA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and certain residents of the Coolidge Circle neighborhood impacted by the operations at SA Farms. The purpose was to provide an opportunity for a candid conversation safely outside the presence of (and potential intimidation by) the operator of SA Farms. You arrived at the library expecting to be able to attend. You were insistent that you should be allowed to attend. The Town Administrator and I were equally insistent that you should not, because the meeting was intended to include only 1) certain neighborhood residents who were already on record with the Town and / or DEP as having submitted complaints about SA Farms, and 2) the residents’ legal representatives. You were neither of those, and were not allowed to attend. Later that night, after the meeting had concluded, you emailed a complaint to the members of the Board of Selectmen, stating that you had an invitation to attend the meeting, and insinuating that the manner by which the meeting was conducted was in violation of Open Meeting Law.

Your complaint, and the email you and I subsequently exchanged, spanning Tue-Fri July 17-20 2018, is appended below. I apply the following minor, non-substantive redactions: to omit your last name and personal email address; to omit my phone number; to declutter the TO: and CC: lines referencing each of the other selectmen and simply say “other selectmen”; and to omit the remainder of the body of a June 19 DEP email message after the opening paragraph (which announces the meeting). Anyone is welcome to make a public record request for these emails to verify I haven’t changed anything substantive.

A few observations:

  1. This email chain was our entire conversation about the matter. I suggested a phone call, and initially you were receptive to that idea, but as the conversation progressed, you opted out.
  2. It’s clear that I made a constructive, good faith effort to be responsive to your complaint, to try to understand how you came to think you were invited, to correct your misunderstanding of Open Meeting Law, and to express concern that you may have negatively mischaracterized the Town’s actions on social media.
  3. In your complaint you stated “On June 18 I had a letter from MassDEP stating I was welcome to attend an informational meeting regarding sa farm at the library.” I couldn’t find anything addressed to you in DEP email about this meeting that I had received directly or been copied on, so in my 7/18 9:40AM email to you, I asked you to send me whatever you had received from DEP. What you sent to me, 14 minutes later at 9:54AM, was just the body (email header excluded) of DEP’s June 19 4:35PM email announcing the meeting. I have a separate copy of this email with full email header intact; the header TO and CC lines contain 27 email recipients consisting of neighborhood residents, Town staff, and DEP staff, but not you. If you received something directly from DEP, this message doesn’t seem to be it. And if you didn’t receive anything directly from DEP, and instead you have a copy of DEP’s message because one of the recipients (a Resident, welcome to attend the meeting) forwarded it to you (a non-Resident, welcome-ness to attend in question), please explain your thought process for claiming “I had a letter from MassDEP stating I was welcome to attend…”. Based on the information I had in hand, that didn’t sound like a very accurate representation of the circumstance.
  4. In your 7/20 2:07PM email, you cite a clerical error on the part of DEP about your eligibility to attend the meeting, and say (referring to the DEP staff member): “She also explained that while the DEP had planned the meeting – she looked to the town to determine who could attend the meeting.” Which we did, in accordance with the intention of the private meeting to include only those who had direct and material standing to participate. No matter how well-meaning your intentions, you did not have that standing. Whatever sidebar conversations and understanding you may have had with DEP, they were not communicated to the Town, either by you or DEP, and that’s where the fault lies; not with the Town.
  5. Also in your 7/20 2:07PM email, you say “…I hope in the future the town will find more appropriate methods of managing these types of “informational” meetings.” First, the term “informational” has no legal significance with respect to Open Meeting Law. The meeting was, from the beginning and by design, a private meeting. It was not posted as a public meeting either by DEP or by the Town. If you were confused in thinking “informational meeting” implied “open public meeting”, that was a mistaken assumption on your part, not something the Town suggested to you. Second, it was DEP, not the Town, that used the term “informational” in its email to neighborhood residents informing them of the meeting. If you found that term to be misleading, your complaint is with DEP, not with the Town.
  6. In my 7/20 2:48PM email to you, I suggested you and I should still have a phone call. I was concerned that, due to your lack of understanding of Open Meeting Law, you may have posted on social media to characterize the Town’s actions as inappropriate or even illegal. In your response 20 minutes later at 3:08PM, you cheerfully exited the conversation without any mention or acknowledgment of that concern.
  7. Apply some common sense. This meeting was carefully and deliberately constructed NOT to be an Open Meeting, to protect the interests of the neighborhood residents to the greatest extent possible. Because, if it were an Open Meeting, anyone could attend, including Santo Anza and his associates; who did, in fact, attempt to gain access to the meeting, and were turned away. (How did they hear about it? The Town didn’t tell them. DEP didn’t tell them. Perhaps on social media? Did you post an advertisement for the meeting on social media, prior to the meeting taking place?) By complaining that the meeting, as conducted, was in violation of Open Meeting Law, you were arguing, in effect, that Santo Anza and his associates should have been allowed to attend the meeting.

As I stated elsewhere: I don’t always find your information to be accurate or complete.

Email conversation July 17-20 2018 follows.


Public “private” sa farms meeting
Laura [last name and email omitted]
Tue 7/17/2018 10:16 PM
To: Jason Perreault jperreault@town.northborough.ma.us; [other selectmen]

Good evening,
I’m really disappointed by the way I was treated tonight by a selectmen and the town administrator. On June 18 I had a letter from MassDEP stating I was welcome to attend an informational meeting regarding sa farm at the library.
I was shocked to learn that town hall can limit the audience at the library and run a private meeting with so many employees and not have to abide by the open meeting laws.
I’m not participating in this to be difficult but as a tax paying resident of this town I expect that you are going to abide by the proper procedure for meetings and felt like this was an abuse of power.
I was not alone in my shock and I don’t appreciate being blamed and chastised for attending.
I don’t know when this meeting was changed from an informational dep meeting to the town run private meeting but I would like to see the correspondence from town counsel and the state confirming that a private meeting with no agenda, minutes, or abutter notification was permissible under massachusetts general law.
There should be no reason that a town resident can be prohibited from attending any meeting other than executive session.

Laura [last name omitted]


Re: Public “private” sa farms meeting
Jason Perreault jperreault@town.northborough.ma.us
Tue 7/17/2018 10:39 PM
To: Laura [last name and email omitted]
Cc: [other selectmen]

Laura,

As the selectman you mention, I would like to speak with you privately to discuss some mistaken impressions you have about tonight’s meeting. Let me know if that is OK, and if so, what times of day on Wednesday would be convenient for you.

Thanks,
Jason


Re: Public “private” sa farms meeting
Laura [last name and email omitted]
Wed 7/18/2018 8:20 AM
To: Jason Perreault jperreault@town.northborough.ma.us
Cc: [other selectmen]

I would appreciate that. Today doesn’t work but I will have time tomorrow or Friday- what number is best to call?
Thanks


Re: Public “private” sa farms meeting
Jason Perreault jperreault@town.northborough.ma.us
Wed 7/18/2018 8:47 AM
To: Laura [last name and email omitted]
Cc: [other selectmen]

Hi Laura,

Please call me any time during business hours or evening Thu or Fri. If I am unable to pick up at the time you call, please leave a voice mail message for best time to reach you or to say you will try again at another time.

Thanks,
Jason


Fw: Public “private” sa farms meeting
Jason Perreault jperreault@town.northborough.ma.us
Wed 7/18/2018 9:40 AM
To: Laura [last name and email omitted]

Hi again,

And…I forgot to include phone number: [phone number omitted]. Sorry.

Sending this email only to you, so that anything I say doesn’t stray into deliberation among a quorum of BOS members who are copied on the email. You are of course welcome to follow up with messages directed to all board members.

It would be helpful to me if you could forward a copy of the email you received from DEP that suggested you would be able to attend last night’s meeting. I don’t see it among emails I’ve received and I’m unclear as to how that misunderstanding arose.

You may already be familiar, but for your reference:

State website page:

https://www.mass.gov/the-open-meeting-law

And in particular, Open Meeting Law Guide:

https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2017/09/25/2017%20Guide%20only.pdf

I’d appreciate it if you could take a few minutes to review the guide and see if it addresses some of the concerns you expressed in your message to us. I’ll be happy to discuss anything that is unclear.

Thanks,
Jason


Fwd: SA Farm Resident Update
Laura [last name and email omitted]
Wed 7/18/2018 9:54 AM
To: Jason Perreault jperreault@town.northborough.ma.us

FYI

On Jun 19, 2018, at 4:35 PM, Briggs, Andrea (DEP) [email omitted] wrote:

Dear Residents:

There has been a lot of email traffic related to SA Farms at 429 Whitney Street in recent weeks. I would like to provide you with an update on MassDEP’s most recent actions related to this site as well as our plans moving forward. I apologize for the length of this message, but there are multiple sites at multiple stages of MassDEP involvement and I want to address everything. To that end, please note that MassDEP will hold an informational meeting for residents potentially impacted by operations at 429 and 432 Whitney Street on Tuesday, July 17th at 6:00 pm in the Library meeting room at 43 Main Street in Northborough.

[remainder of message detailing MassDEP’s activities omitted]

Re: Public “private” sa farms meeting
Laura [last name and email omitted]
Fri 7/20/2018 2:07 PM
To: Jason Perreault jperreault@town.northborough.ma.us
Cc: [other selectmen]

Hi All, I just wanted to let you know that I had a conversation with Andrea Briggs (DEP) yesterday regarding being excluded from the meeting. She apologized to me and explained that there was an oversite on her part as I was supposed to be included on her list of approved attendees based on our correspondence. She also explained that while the DEP had planned the meeting – she looked to the town to determine who could attend the meeting. I think we can all agree that this didn’t go as well as it could have and I hope in the future the town will find more appropriate methods of managing these types of “informational” meetings. Fondly, Laura


Re: Public “private” sa farms meeting
Jason Perreault jperreault@town.northborough.ma.us
Fri 7/20/2018 2:48 PM
To: Laura [last name and email omitted]
Cc: [other selectmen]

Hi Laura,

Thank you for your note. You and I haven’t had our private conversation yet and, if you are amenable, I would still like to have that conversation.

There are several points in your original message to us that I would like to address, the most serious being a misunderstanding of Open Meeting Law and how it applies in this case; and, based on a misunderstanding of OML, your comments suggest that the Town staff and Board members acted inappropriately, or even illegally, in conducting the meeting this way.

That perception could not be more wrong, and I hope it has not been widely expressed in email and social media before I’ve had an opportunity to address your concerns as you have communicated them to us.

I’ll be occupied at work for the remainder of the afternoon, but will be home by 6:00pm. Please call me this evening or suggest another time we can speak this weekend.

Thanks,
Jason
[phone number omitted]


Re: Public “private” sa farms meeting
Laura [last name and email omitted]
Fri 7/20/2018 3:08 PM
To: Jason Perreault jperreault@town.northborough.ma.us
Cc: [other selectmen]

I read the open meeting law and guide again, focusing specifically on how it pertained to this meeting. I don’t have any further questions at this point- if that changes I’d be happy to give you a ring.
Thanks so much and have a great weekend.
Laura