The turmoil engulfing the Boston School Committee has highlighted a chronic problem with public meetings across the state: Often, there are at least two meetings going on — the one the public sees, and one hidden from the public where councilors and School Committee members exchange texts in secret.
Elected officials will tell you their in-meeting texting is innocuous — checking messages or touching base with family members during a long meeting. But as recently released texts between two members of the Boston School Committee revealed, that’s not always the case.
Alex Oliver-Dávila and Lorna Rivera spent part of a long meeting about suspending the entrance test to the city’s exam schools exchanging texts about critics of the proposal, including white and Asian parents who considered the proposed changes discriminatory.
Oliver-Dávila and Rivera both had harsh words for white parents from West Roxbury. “Wait until the white racists start yelling at us,” Rivera texted to Oliver-Dávila. “Whatever. They’re delusional,” texted Oliver-Dávila, who later added. “I hate WR.” Both resigned once the exchanges became public.
Those exchanges — two members talking about committee business during a public meeting — should have been public in the first place. And the practice isn’t limited to Boston. We’ve all seen local councilors and School Committee members on their phones during meetings, leaving the public with no idea who they are talking to and what is being said.
The state attorney general’s office, which oversees the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, offers some very specific guidance on its website. Elected officials should “avoid the use of electronic devices during meetings to discuss matters within the jurisdiction of the public body” if the texts can’t be seen by members of the public at the meeting.
“With a few exceptions, any use of electronic messaging by public body members to communicate with a quorum of public body members, during or outside of a meeting, may constitute private deliberation, which is prohibited by the Open Meeting Law,” according to the attorney general’s office. “Electronic messaging during a meeting by less than a quorum of the public body’s members, while not directly prohibited by the Open Meeting Law, is discouraged if those electronic communications are not shared at the meeting with the members of the public who are present.”
It shouldn’t take a public records request to learn what elected officials are really doing during public meetings. It’s time to put down the phones and do the public’s business openly.