WESTFIELD – On the City Council agenda tonight (Thursday) under reports of City Officers, City Clerk Karen M. Fanion will bring forward an Open Meeting Law complaint from Kristen Mello of Moseley Avenue against the Westfield City Council. The complaint, which City Council President Ralph J. Figy said will be forwarded to the Law Department for a response, cites audio disturbances on Ch. 15 video broadcasts over councilor comments.
According to Mello’s complaint, approximately one hour and thirteen minutes into the Jan. 17 meeting, audio disturbances consistent with microphone rubbing can be heard over At-large Councilor Nicholas J. Morganelli, Jr.’s comments. “Because the meeting minutes are not yet posted, it is not yet known whether or not they will adequately represent Councilor Morganelli’s comments,” Mello wrote in the complaint to the Attorney General, saying that previous minutes have not included information lost to audio, and adding, “Many meeting minutes are absent entirely.”
Morganelli could not be reached for comment.
The complaint goes on to say that this type of audio disturbance interferes with the public record, and is a hardship on residents with hearing impairments. “I believe this to have been intentional interference because a cursory search of previous resident complaints on social media about microphone/audio/technical disturbances during City Council meetings reveals far too many instances of this occurring when undesired information has been shared,” Mello stated, listing links to previous council videos dating from Sept., 2017 to July, 2018.
In the response requested section of the OML Complaint, Mello wrote that she seeks the following: “Train ALL City in OML. Require audio & video recording & online archival of ALL Public meetings held by ANY City of Westfield Department, Commission, Board, Council, or public body, with free access for residents. Eliminate chance for future human audio & video interferences. Keep accurate minutes for each meeting & post without exception. Closed Captioning for the Hearing Impaired, of all meetings, eliminating the longstanding barrier to those residents with hearing loss. Issue an apology.”
When asked about the complaint, City Clerk Karen M. Fanion said the minutes of a meeting that have been approved and voted on by committee members are the official record of a meeting.
Fanion, who takes the minutes for the City Council meetings, said after completing them, she sends them to the councilors for review, at which time councilors may make amendments or additions. She then sends them to the Mayor for a signature. After the Mayor signs the minutes, they go back to the City Council for a vote. Before voting on the minutes, which they have already reviewed, councilors have another opportunity to make amendments.
“There are times that they are amended,” Fanion said, giving a recent example from the Dec. 20 meeting, when Councilor Dave Flaherty said the minutes from the Dec. 6 meeting reflected his reference to “Free Cash,” when what he meant to say was “New Growth.”
Fanion said the City Council minutes are posted on the city website at www.cityofwestfield.org after being voted on and approved.
Fanion conceded that sometimes there is static from the microphones. She said for the public especially, if someone is going to speak, they need to come to the microphone and give their name, in order for their comments to be accurately reflected in the minutes. She also said minutes are not word for word, but a summary of the discussion that takes place.
Fanion said that it is not mandatory for the city to broadcast meetings.
According to the Open Meeting Law (found at www.mass.gov/the-open-meeting-law): A public body shall create and maintain accurate minutes of all meetings, including executive sessions, setting forth the date, time and place, the members present or absent, a summary of the discussions on each subject, a list of documents or other exhibits used at the meeting, the decisions made, and the actions taken at each meeting, including the record of all votes.
Minutes of open sessions shall be created and approved in a timely manner. The minutes of an open session, if they exist, and whether approved or in draft form, shall be made available upon request by any person within 10 days. (Some exceptions to this regarding Executive Session minutes are listed in the OML)
Documents and other exhibits, such as photographs, recordings or maps, used by the body at an open or executive session shall, along with the minutes, be part of the official record of the session.
Regarding video, the OML states: After notifying the chair of the public body, any person may make a video or audio recording of an open session of a meeting of a public body, or may transmit the meeting through any medium, subject to reasonable requirements of the chair as to the number, placement and operation of equipment used so as not to interfere with the conduct of the meeting. At the beginning of the meeting, the chair shall inform other attendees of any such recordings.
When contacted, the Law Department said the complaint is on the City Council agenda, and until the City Council discusses it further, they cannot comment. The Attorney General’s office did not respond to a request for clarification on the status of video broadcasts under the OML.
Mello agreed that the City Clerk does an excellent job of taking minutes of the City Council meetings, but she said the minutes that are not always posted in a timely manner or at all, which she referred to in her complaint, are those of sub-committees.
She also said that she contacted the AG’s office regarding the OML complaint and did receive a call back, during which she was advised to file the complaint of the microphone interference.
“It’s such a complicated situation, so I wasn’t sure if it was Open Meeting Law,” Mello said, adding that when somebody has physical contact with the microphone, you can hear it on the speakers in the gallery.
Mello also said that she believes the interference is intentional, because there is a clear difference in sound when someone is touching or positioning the microphone to speak, or touches it while shuffling papers, than when it is rubbed. She also claimed that only certain councilors’ audio is interfered with.
Mello said the incident on the Jan. 17 broadcast wasn’t as egregious as past incidents, which she listed as links in her complaint, but that the previous incidents happened too long ago to be considered as OML violations. (Petitioners have to file an OML complaint within 30 days of an incident.) However, she said she was told that the previous incidents can be referred to as a pattern of behavior.
Mello said she didn’t know if any of it could be proven. “Even if it doesn’t work,” Mello said about the OML complaint, “It wouldn’t be the first time I tried to stand up for something and it didn’t work.”
“Sometimes you just have to stand up,” she said.