AG cautions Sandwich town committee about open meeting law lapses

In October the Sandwich Historic District Committee began considering a neighborhood dispute about a dirt pile and a wall made of natural materials in Ellin Asack's yard on Gully Lane.

During that deliberation — which remains undecided as of Monday before the committee — Asack filed complaints with the state Attorney General against the committee, alleging the group violated open meeting laws.

In documents dated June 7, the Attorney General issued determinations that the committee did violate open meeting law under the leadership of former Committee Chair Michael Sullivan.

"The determinations aren't a victory for me — it's a victory for everybody," said Asack, who lodged her complaints with the state on Feb. 21 and March 2.

Asack filed open meeting violation complaints with the committee on Nov. 21 and Dec. 5, according to state documents.

Town Counsel from KP Law responded to complaints to the Attorney General and to complaints filed by Asack, on behalf of the committee.

Sandwich Town Clerk Taylor White said it appears that the committee did make a series of mistakes.

"They need training," said White over the phone Thursday.

According to a town bylaw, the town clerk is responsible for administering and enforcing the open meeting law. The clerk's office, along with town counsel, said White, is in the process of completing a handbook that simplifies legal and ethical language pertaining to the open meeting law. The handbook would be completed in about two weeks, he said.

Sullivan didn't return calls from the Times for comment.

Four of the Sandwich Historic District Committee's five members are elected for terms of four years. A fifth member must be an architect or builder and is appointed annually by the Select Board.

Sandwich Town Hall
Sandwich Town Hall

What did the Attorney General determine?

The Attorney General determined that the committee discussed two topics during its Oct. 23 open meeting that weren't included on its meeting notice. The Attorney General also determined that the committee's meeting minutes were inaccurate, and that the committee failed to include a list of the documents and exhibits that were used during the meeting, according to the state.

The Attorney General also determined that the committee violated the open meeting law by posting an insufficient notice for a Nov. 6 site visit to Asack's home and by deliberating through email on Nov. 6, according to state documents.

In response to Asack's complaint, the committee asserted that even if the Nov. 6 email constituted improper deliberation, it cured the violation “by appending the email to its minutes for its Jan. 8 meeting, which are publicly available."

A review of the Jan. 8 meeting minutes, according to the state, showed that during the committee’s discussion of the present complaint, Sullivan read “into the record an email he sent to Ms. Asack.” However, the email is not appended to the minutes, according to state documents. Nor is the email summarized in the minutes, listed in the minutes as a document used at the meeting, or otherwise specifically identified in the minutes, according to the state.

The Attorney General ordered the committee to amend the minutes of its Jan. 8 meeting to include the Nov. 6 email, within 30 days of the receipt of the determination.

In a state document dated June 7, the Attorney General also determined that the committee violated the open meeting law by failing to comply with certification requirements, according to state documents. Certifications are forms mandated by the state, according to its website, that ensure board members serve the public with integrity.

Through all its determinations, the state ordered the committee’s immediate and future compliance with the open meeting law, and cautioned that future, similar violations may be considered evidence of an intent to violate the law.

Complaints filed in 2023 in building department

In October 2023, Asack's neighbors filed a complaint with the town building department about a wall, or hedge, Asack constructed out of tree trunks and other vegetation, according to state documents.

Earlier, Building Commissioner Brendan Brides determined he could not make a decision about the wall and referred Asack to the Historic District Commission. His letter instructed Asack to apply to the committee for approval of the hedge and said Asack could also appeal Brides’ determination to the committee.

Asack appealed.

On Oct. 16, the committee posted notice for a meeting to be held on Oct. 23, according to state documents, and noted that Brides decision would be reviewed.

Before the Oct. 23 meeting, the committee received a second complaint from Asack's neighbors that involved a dirt mound on Asack's property. On Oct. 19, Sullivan sent an email to the committee regarding the matter of the hedge and mentioned that a second complaint would be addressed at the upcoming meeting.

The Attorney General found that the committee improperly discussed matters during the Oct. 23 meeting that had not been included on the notice for that meeting. According to state documents, the committee agreed with the finding and amended the minutes of the Oct. 23 meeting to include a list of documents.

What is a certification form?

In White’s opinion, Asack’s complaint about certifications was based on a technicality. For the last decade, he said, the clerk’s office has required town board and committee members to sign what he calls a “roster.” Their signatures affirm that they received a copy of the open meeting law, the conflict of interest law, and a guide to standards of conduct as provided under state law.

“The paperwork they signed saying they received it wasn’t in conformity with what the AG prescribes,” said White. “We went ahead and changed it. But in essence it’s still the same.”

If board and committee members are signing a form that doesn’t require them to read and understand the open meeting law, said Asack, it’s questionable if they understand the law's requirements.

Asack wants transparency and education

Throughout the state's complaint evaluation process, Asack said she's learned that it's important to hold boards and committees accountable.

"It's important to all of us, including the people who sit on these committees, that open government happens," said Asack. "All I wanted was education and remediation."

Rachael Devaney writes about community and culture. Reach her at rdevaney@capecodonline.com. Follow her on Twitter: @RachaelDevaney.

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This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Sandwich land owner complaints identify open meeting law errors

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