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AG Campbell Posts Guidance on Candidate Forums and the Open Meeting Law

Before November’s municipal elections, the Waltham city solicitor issued an opinion that it would be “’potentially problematic’ for elected city officials to participate in discussions at political forums that relate to issues currently before the City Council or its committees,” according to an editorial in the Boston Globe. That opinion put a damper on a candidate forum held by the Waltham LWV, as well as other forums. Waltham had many candidates, including incumbents, running for City Council.

In a Globe letter to the editor, LWVMA asked Attorney General Andrea Campbell to clarify the meaning of the open meeting law as it related to incumbent candidates discussing issues before the board or committee on which they served. 

The Attorney General ruled the open meeting law does not prevent incumbent candidates from making comments to the general public. For her opinion,

“May members of a public body participate in a candidate forum or otherwise share their views with the public on matters currently or likely to come before their public body?

The Open Meeting Law does not restrict an individual’s right to make comments to the general public, particularly as a candidate for office. Rather, it restricts communication between or among a quorum of a public body outside of a meeting; thus, the intent of the public official is an important consideration.  Therefore, a communication directed at the broader public is generally permissible even if a quorum of the speaker’s own public body incidentally hears or reads the communication, as long as the other public body members do not respond.  So, if a member of a public body participates in a candidate forum or a similar public event and other members of that body are attending the forum or event, the member may direct their comments to the public.  In addition, even a quorum of members of a public body may participate in a candidate forum or similar public event, and each share their opinions on a matter that may fall within the public body’s jurisdiction, as long as the members engage only with the public and not with each other.  Therefore, public body members should not direct their comments to their colleagues nor respond to each other’s comments.”

Frequently asked questions about the Open Meeting Law | Mass.gov  and scroll down to “deliberation and electronic communication.”

Note that, if a candidate forum includes two or more incumbents on the same board or committee, these candidates could state their opinions on issues, but they could not debate or respond to each other about those issues.

It’s an issue that might come up during town elections, so it’s good to have this clarified well in advance.