My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Concern over 'official' bloggers spurs query to DA

Hampshire Gazette
By Ben Storrow

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

So much for Irv's pledge ...
"I PLEDGE TO: To be open, honest and transparent about any and all matters that come before the Amherst School Committee and keep you informed about any events that directly or indirectly involve the work of the Amherst School Committee."

He should've told you before signing and sending the letter. Bad form.

Anonymous said...

Where's the ACLU when we need them?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 3:44 - I wish any of the 5 members who signed that letter had had the courtesy to tell me it was being submitted. None did. One, however, has apologized for that oversight: Irv.

Anonymous 4:58 - I'm actually in touch with the ACLU now.

One more thing: you can read another blogger's reaction to this issue at:

http://tommydevine.blogspot.com/2010/05/down-on-blogs.html.

Anonymous said...

Now, under the rules of civility invoked constantly on this blog by commenters, I guess we are not supposed to speculate about or question the motives of any of the 5 School Committee Chairs who submitted questions to the DA. Just take it as simply a civic-minded inquiry.

We are NOT supposed to juxtapose this action with any of the heat generated from the Amherst SC's retaining a lawyer to look at Union 26. There is no connection there.

Done.

Now how does this unquestioning civility thing work for national politics?

Rich Morse

TomG said...

Why is it appropriate for the DA to get involved based on a letter of inquiry? Shouldn't the five people pursue this issue on their own dime, with private counsel, not yours or my dime?

How is writing a blog and posting comments to other peoples comments different from going to the Black Sheep every Monday and speaking with people who know you'll be there and who want to talk about town government or school policy?

Who wrote this polemic pablum?
My concern is maintaining the integrity of the public decision-making process. Having more information available to the public is a good thing. But how that happens needs to be clarified to ensure fairness and legality."

Anonymous said...

And how is the 5 commitee chairs asking for an opinion from the DA any different than the Amherst SC spending my tax dollars to hire a lawyer to explore pulling out of Union 26?

Anonymous said...

Everyone run out to the garage, get your tiki torches and let's go get her!!!!

Anonymous said...

Good point, Anon 10:20 PM.

So didn't this initiative require, as a preliminary step, the obligatory grandstanding form-a-circle-and-talk-out-our-problems discussion that Farnham and Hajirr tried to compel from the Amherst SC on Union 26? No chance for Hood and Sanderson to make their case?

If the result of this is no more anonymous posting, we will say farewell to teachers, administrators, and certain parents who post to their heart's content anonymously on Catherine's blog. One perspective out of the picture. How is that a plus for this community?

Anonymous said...

I see one of the people quoted in the Gazette article is from the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.

Hmmmm......they have no dog in this hunt, right?

TomG said...

And how is the 5 commit[t]ee chairs asking for an opinion from the DA any different than the Amherst SC spending my tax dollars to hire a lawyer to explore pulling out of Union 26?

The latter was an official action based on a vote taken by elected officials. I don't know if the same can be said about the former.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Rich - I am saddened by the chairs' choice to write a letter, particularly since there is no way the DA is going to issue an advisory opinion in the absence of a specific complaint (e.g., Catherine and two other members violated the open meeting law on X date), so this letter is NOT going to result in any firm legal decision. But more importantly, I think the chairs have accomplished their goal, which was to have this story on the front page of the Bulletin, thereby leading people to question whether my blog is illegal and my actions not ethical; otherwise why would the writers have ALSO sent their letter to the paper?

TomG - I'm quite sure the DA is NOT going to do anything with it (as the DA has a fair amount of work examining actual crimes), and I agree with you -- how is this blog different than any type of discussion SC members have with constituents in lots of different settings (e.g., via email, at public meetings, etc.). I continue to be amazed that people believe the public would be better served by having less information about what elected officials thinks, and less opportunity to have a dialogue.

Anonymous 10:20 - well, I think there are a number of differences, but let me point out one thing: the Amherst SC that is spending $3,000 of your tax dollars getting a legal opinion on the options for exiting Union 26 also voted to close Marks Meadow (saving $800,000+ a year). In addition, it may well be that exiting Union 26 would save the district money. Remember, Amherst paid our last superintendent (Rodriguez) more than $30,000 more than the Northampton superintendent -- one of the reasons has always been "well, we have three districts to supervise, so it is more complex." It could well be that changing the Union 26 agreement in some way could lead us to be able to lower how much we pay superintendents -- thus having a benefit FAR greater than $3,000.

Anonymous 10:45 - I'm hoping you were joking ... although I'm certain some would agree with this plan.

Anonymous 6:48 - good point -- it is indeed interesting that NONE of the SC chairs (including the regional chair or Pelham chair) had the courtesy to inform me this letter had been sent, or to discuss their concerns. And I totally agree with your statement: "If the result of this is no more anonymous posting, we will say farewell to teachers, administrators, and certain parents who post to their heart's content anonymously on Catherine's blog. One perspective out of the picture. How is that a plus for this community?"

Anonymous 6:55 - well, I think if there was a ruling that elected officials can't have blogs, it would have major implications for newspaper stories -- can you not quote more than 1 SC member in an article, so they don't learn each other's views? Can you not quote SC members at all on a topic that is coming up on a future agenda? I believe newspapers and bloggers have the same goal: more transparency. And I continue to be puzzled by the thought that some people think transparency is bad.

TomG said...

The basis for all of the questions is the commonwealth's Open Meeting Law, DeChiara said, which states that a quorum of committee members cannot discuss public business outside of a public meeting. (emphasis mine)

The law also requires that government meetings be open to the public, that notice of the meetings be publicly posted in advance and that accurate records of such meetings be kept.

(blogs seem to constitutionally meet all three requirements ... so no violation there. But does a blog constitute a meeting with a quorum - intentionality notwithstanding.) Quorum is the operative word but perhaps more importantly intent to have a meeting with a quorum.

If the intent of using blogs was to skirt the open meeting law then they would be found to be an issue. Since the intention of this blog is to communicate with constituents on matters that come before the school committee (and matters that should) and not a forum to skirt open meeting laws, then I think the use of a blog will be deemed acceptable.

I've changed my mind. Bring on the scrutiny. At least the issue will be put to rest and we can get back to working on SCHOOL policy.

TomG said...

I'm quite sure the DA is NOT going to do anything with it (as the DA has a fair amount of work examining actual crimes)

Then let's hope the response letter comes back quickly so the 5 chairs can file their lawsuit or issue a statement that they are no longer pursuing the issue.

Do we know if this letter is the result of a formal vote at an open meeting or if 5 folks met outside an official meeting, with or without a quorum, and issued the letter?

Cathy Eden said...

Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished, Catherine. This blog has made the SC more accessible than ever - and more visible - which I'm sure many people have a problem with. I'm glad you contacted the ACLU - and I can't wait to see this unfold. Although, I hope it doesn't distract too much from the important work that the school committee needs to attend to. The blogger that you posted a link to said it well:

"These phony concerns about blogging are really just a lot of hair-splitting blather designed to pervert the open-meeting law in order to use it as a club to beat into silence public officials who have the audacity to blog about what local officials are doing. God forbid that the public be as privy to what is going on as the political insiders. Actually there is really no reason for any official rules for blogging by politicians, because the simple standard is this: Any action that brings more information to the public about what the political class is doing is automatically GOOD. Any action that helps to obscure or hide information from the public is BAD. I don't think you need a law degree to tell the difference."

Anonymous said...

Blogs aren't meetings because they don't happen in real time.

People (including elected officials) meeting at the local diner every day at 7 am to shoot the political breeze is more of a meeting than this blog. Ethically, actually and I'll bet legally.

Anonymous said...

Why all the concern about a simple request for information? I'm sure the chairs will be happy to discuss it once they have a legal opinion and really there's no point in any discussion until they know what their options are. Wait this sounds familiar for some reason...

Kate said...

Without addressing whether this should have been brought to Catherine and Rick's attention before escalating it to the DA, and leaving aside whether we value this forum, I think it's worth stepping back and considering the actual legal issue.

According to the Open Meeting Law, a School Committee member may not discuss School Committee issues with a quorum of School Committee members outside of an open meeting (there are some nuances that don't apply here, such as coming up with agenda items for a meeting, or going into executive session).

The Open Meeting Law defines a meeting as a "corporal convening," which means that electronic communications are not meetings, and thus not "Open Meetings." This is reinforced in the changes that are coming to the Open Meeting Law on July 1. Therefore, if Catherine discusses SC issues with a quorum of the SC on this blog it would seem to violate the Open Meeting Law.

Given that there is no way to determine whether the discussion that is being held on this forum includes a quorum of SC members, it seems pretty clear to me that there is a valid question about whether the Open Meeting Law is being violated. If there were no anonymous postings, perhaps there would be no issue (though I think there would still be the question of whether posters are actually truthfully identifying themselves).

This isn't to say I agree with the law, because if you take it to its logical extension then it could be improper for a SC member to post on any forum that includes anonymous posters. I think Catherine's extension to not being able to quote more than one SC member in a newspaper article is a little off the mark, though. I believe it is discussion of issues that is not permitted; I don't think there's any prohibition about learning views of the other members.

Abbie said...

I would be surprised, not knowing anything about law, but being a deeply pragmatic person, if this goes anywhere. It will be recognized that if this would be found to be a violation, there would be no real ability to enforce the principle. For example, CS could outsource her blog to someone else. She could, for example, email me any material she would want posted on 'my blog'. I could post it and then folks (including SC members using aliases) could freely post! There ain't no stopping people from getting information and discussion it (or dissing it)...

lise said...

I do not see a series of posts on a blog as a discussion, even if a quorum of SC members participate on the blog. It is simply a SC member expressing an opinion on an issue in a public place. Are we saying SC members can never make any public comment on school issues outside of a meeting just in case there may be a quorum of SC members in the room? If each SC member published a letter to the editor of the Amherst Bulletin on the same issue is that an open meeting violation? Posting on a blog is seems just like a letter to the editor to me. Sorry Kate - I just don't see how blogs are meetings open or otherwise. Hopefully the DA will rule on this and we can get back to the actual issues.

Kate said...

Lise,

The examples you give are of a statement being made, and I agree completely that letters to the editor or a statement on a website do not violate the open meeting law, even if several SC members were to do the same thing.

But Catherine engages in a dialog--that is, a back and forth discussion. If she posted and then she never responded to anonymous posts, maybe there's no question here. But to me it seems pretty clear that there's the potential that the Open Meeting Law is being violated.

I don't know if this will merit an investigation by the DA, or how it would turn out if there were, but I do think there are legitimate questions.

Anonymous said...

If blogs violate the Open Meeting Laws, then what about Facebook pages? There are countless politicians with Facebook pages. The same probably goes for Twitter. If the law really prohibits these activities, we need to take another look at this law (just like we ought to take another look at Union 26)

LarryK4 said...

Then perhaps what the School Committee chiefs should have done was come up with an example of Catherine violating the Open Meeting Law and let the Judge...err, DA decide.

lise said...

Kate,

Letters to the editor are often back and forth discussions. Just look at this week's Bulletin for examples. Perhaps CS should address all of her responses to "dear blog reader" instead of using the name of the person who wrote the comment? The only other difference is timing. Letter to the Editor responses are by definition delayed until the next publication of the newspaper. Blog responses are often much faster.

I am not a lawyer, but to me serial blog postings are not meetings, and are not discussions. A blog post is simply one individual expressing an opinion on an issue, or an opinion on someone else's opinion, in a public media outlet. There is no deliberation involved.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

As part of serving on the SC, we are all required to go through training - which includes training on open meeting law. The point of this law is to make sure the public can see the discussion -- so that members don't make decisions in private, and then announce those decisions in public.

So, I'm still not sure why a blog isn't ideal -- even if ALL members were participating using their actual names, since this strikes me as a lot more accessible than a meeting at a specific date and time (which is NOT required to be televised, and thus only minutes remain, which never capture each person's precise words).

However, if you read the letter, they are asking for advice on many things, which includes (a) the accusation that other SC members are violating open meeting law by anonymously posting on my blog (this seems like an easy fix -- just forbid this practice -- but also I can't imagine other SC members in fact doing this), (b) moderating opionions which means we don't hear the full range of views (again, this strikes me as crazy -- since the full range of people don't choose to post on a blog regardless!), (c) noting that "learning the positions of other members" is a problem (which is precisely why we shouldn't allow newspaper articles to quote SC members), (d) suggesting we can't share opinions on any matters that MIGHT come up before the SC, and (e) suggesting that the CHAIR of the SC needs to monitor and guide the discussion on blogs.

I continue to find it all very discouraging, because I believe the public is best served by fully understanding each SC member's view, and reason for holding that view, about particular educational issues, and by having the opportunity to freely communicate with that SC member. My blog serves both of those purposes -- if you disagree with all that I'm saying, at least you know where I stand, which lets voters make informed decisions about who they want serving on the SC.

But ultimately, I'll be very, very surprised if the DA issues an "advisory ruling" since the DA is actually busy investigating real crimes and there isn't even any accusation that the open meeting law HAS been violated (e.g., an accusation that Irv and Steve are constantly posting anonymously and deliberating with me).

ITpro said...

The following is a Internet professional's responses to each question posed in the Chairs of School Committees in Western Massachusetts letter to the Assistant District Attorney. Perhaps the Chairs do not understand new technology as they overlook the fact that new technologies are merely digital metaphors for physical objects. A blog is not mystifying; it is just a log book that happens to be online. Presently existing rules and conventions for regular communication methods (mail, telephone, newspaper articles, pamphlets) can, and should, be applied.


1. A quorum cannot exist when the participants are anonymous. In an anonymous forum the comments are merely comments; the participants are isolated voices—a committee member cannot be represented in anonymity. Is it possible to elect an anonymous person to the School Board? If no, then a committee member cannot be an anonymous person, and therefore a quorum cannot exist in any venue when participants, or their comments, are anonymous. An anonymous user cannot be considered a committee member--the anonymous user has no identity. For a user to be considered a committee member while online, they must be identifiable as a committee member and that identity must be capable of being vetted.


2. Consider a blog as it is meant to be considered: as a Web-based log. Now, consider a paper-based log. A log is merely a collection of thoughts and interpretations of a person. Can a paper-based log written by a public official be edited by the same public official? Reason dictates the answer is yes. If the paper-based log is left in a public setting with a pencil for people to leave comments (signed or anonymous), is it then permissible for the public official to edit those comments? Reason dictates yes. Why? It is still the public official’s log. It is merely a written account of thoughts and interpretations. The log alone does not break any normal conventions.


3. This is not an issue with the blog itself, but rather with the commenting feature. If committee members exchange information outside a scheduled public meeting, with the intent to forge consensus or create policy, and reach quorum, they are in violation of the Open Meetings Law. School Committee members should avoid commenting on blogs with the intent to forge consensus or create policy.


4. Let us imagine every public official has written a newspaper article. Would the Open Meeting Law forbid public officials from reading articles written by their colleagues? No. Likewise members should not be restricted from reading any other material.


5. The fifth question is vague and poorly worded. Can a member raise issues on a blog that have not yet been discussed with the committee in a public meeting? For example: “What do we do if aliens attack the school?”


6. The blog it is not an official, sanctioned committee record. Therefore unofficial, unsanctioned communications do not need to adhere to standards of "appropriate" or "civil" discourse. The committee should have no jurisdiction over such types of communication.


7. This is basically the same question as #3. Public officials should avoid communicating outside public meetings with the intent to forge consensus or create policy. Though, anonymous comments on blogs should be allowed for reasons covered in response #1.


8. Committee members should not deliberate on a blog. It is not official public record. However, again, to be a "committee member" the user must be identifiable as a committee member. Anonymous users may deliberate as they lack an identity and therefore cannot make quorum, forge consensus or create policy.

LarryK4 said...

And Regional Chair Farshid Hajir should know better since the state Public Documents pro recently ruled that his 4 notebooks filled with impressions of Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez, jotted down at public meetings, were immune to my public documents request because they were considered a "personal diary."

And does that term not sort of define a blog ? A personal diary/reflection that you just happen to allow the multitudes to peek over your shoulder.

TomG said...

If Regional Chair Farshid Hajir valued transparency he would have offered to publish redacted pages of his notebooks that were responsive to the request while still protecting the parts of the notes that the public has no right to read. Instead, he chose to conceal all of it.

TomG said...

I far prefer CSs approach in which she puts in much time and effort explaining her rationale for the policies she supports, and even her rationale for the politics necessary as part of advocating for those policies.

TomG said...

I'm trying to think back before 'the coup' when school administrators and the regional school committee conspired to install an interim super for sixteen months as a fait accompli that certainly was engineered behind the scenes (perhaps in violation of the open meeting law) and not actually debated in earnest in a regional school committee meeting but presented as if it had already been decided (which I imagine it was.)

If its time for the scrutiny to begin, that is where it should start.

Mary Serreze said...

http://vimeo.com/9000105

New state ethics law goes into effect in July; here's a video recording of lawyer Elaine Real presenting highlights of the new law to the Northampton City Council.

She addresses issues related to the new open meeting law requirements in her address. It's an interesting presentation; worth watching.

Note that the Attorney General's office will handle ethics and open meeting law complaints starting in July--not the DA's office as it is now.

Oh, now I get it said...

So maybe this thread has been a secret school committee being held out in the open without School Committee member Catherine Sanderson's knowledge because the other school committee members are posting anonymously and are unknown to her and each other so she and they are violating the Open Meeting Law by their anonymous remarks which no one can identify the writers of and they all seceretly and maybe unknowingly to Sanderson and each other have discussed and decided to...what?