Sacred Cods and Holy Mackerals


The Legislature and the Open Meeting Law
June 15, 2009, 11:05 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

My apologies for the week off. The trout were biting at Mosquito Lake, the house needed some painting, the kid’s swingset needed to be built, the grass needed to be mowed, and  I had to divest my investments of all companies with Q’s in their names, just like the man on TV at 2:30 a.m. told me to.

Anyway, this has been a topsy-turvy period for many political observers. There’s been the sudden re-awakening of Deval Patrick as Gov. Reform. There’s been the Legislature realizing they need to throw a bone to the good-government types every once in a while, even if the true savings are more symbolic than monetary. Jim O’Sullivan of State House News Service summed up this self-discovery quite nicely last Friday:

The Democrats among them chant the reform mantra in cultish fashion, ferociously hopeful that whatever bills they do pass perfume away the stench infesting the capitol in time to allow them to avoid being indicted by voters next year as the party of DiMasi-Wilkerson-Marzilli.

And then there’s the increasing recognition among the Progressive wing of the Progressive/Hack Alliance (the voting bloc that helps keep Democrats firmly entrenched on Beacon Hill) that they may have entered into a relationship that in the long-run will prove to be more parasitic than symbiotic.

Oh, the conversations over at Blue Mass. Group as of late have been most interesting and polarizing. (For those of you Republicans reading this, yes Democrats do allow for differing opinions within their party. They even occaisionally have – gasp! – primaries!)  

There was the fission over the Suffolk County-only holidays. (progressives anti, hacks pro). Then there was the kerfuffle at the state party convention when the progressives decided the party-authored platform was too blah, and wanted to kill it. Said one BMG poster:

[T]he draft platform for presentation at yesterday’s state convention illustrated an entrenched bureaucracy. It was worse than lacking leadership. Despite strong progressive calls and actions by Gov. Deval Patrick and President Barack Obama in campaigns and since election, the platform was devoid of strong positions or specifics. After numerous hearings where Dems made their best pitches for such planks, the party boo-bahs went vanilla with whipped cream for the draft.

And then Party Chairman John Walsh nearly got booed off the floor for not ordering a roll call. Then again, it is worth remembering that John Walsh is the guy who ran Plymouth County Sheriff Joe McDonough’s ill-fated  2004 re-election campaign — the same Joe McDonough who was, as the Brockton Enterprise put it “the worst county official in recent memory.” Get more of the fun details here.   My guess is that this race isn’t particularly high on Walsh’s resume.

The latest debate comes over whether or not the Legislature should remain exempt from the state’s Open Meeting Laws. We’ll ignore the fact for the moment that the current laws contain enough loopholes, and are so poorly enforced, that they rarely prevent municipal boards from engaging  in behind-the-scenes mischief.  

The progressives of course are stunned — STUNNED! — to learn that the Open Meeting Law, as well as the state’s Public Records Law, don’t apply to the Legislature. While the Hacks, of course, would rather see the TV cameras turned off during sessions, the reporters kicked out of the gallerys, and think 10am public hearings make John Adams faint out of pride for democracy.

The truth is that what really should be targeted are the party Caucuses that take place prior to important legislative sessions. This is where the real debates are held, where the real votes are taken. This is where the party progressives put up a stink before walking into the chamber and voting the leadeship line.  But I don’t know exactly to eliminate this. If you apply the OML to the Legislature, the House Speaker and the Senate President, will just break the caucuses up into two shifts, so that a majority is never in the same room at the same time. The outcome will still be the same. It will just mean more time spent in closed-door meetings.

No volume of laws will ever prevent politicians from meeting in corners, taverns, smoke-filled-rooms, etc. Political plotting and horse-trading has been a part of the process since the first caveman said “Oog, this no fair.’ I’m not saying this is right or ideal — I’m just pointing out a reality.

The point of having an accountable democracy is that votes are public. You know how your representative and senator votes on an issue. And often that’s the deciding factor in these closed-door sessions: “I can’t vote for this, I’ll be killed back home.” While sunshine is a great disinfectant, nothing beats an informed and engaged electorate. No law will ever prevent a House Speaker from twisting a representative’s arm. But that representative’s arm gets alot stronger, if he knows the people back home are watching.

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