Friday, September 14, 2007
Open meetings are in Carlisle's best interest
Except for a few special circumstances which are listed in the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, town government should not be conducted in secret. Town board and committee members are representing the public in a democratic process, and need to safeguard the voters' right to understand government actions. Most volunteers serving on town boards would not knowingly do anything to harm Carlisle. However, through ignorance, or haste, government officials are not always adhering to the law.
Recently a committee has used e-mail to discuss issues privately. A committee has held an executive session without taking formal minutes. One committee recently decided between meetings to hire a consultant. Meeting times have been changed, or meetings have been extended and reconvened without legal posting. Without targeting specific boards, it is clear the town has a problem.
It should be possible to conduct Carlisle's town affairs while still obeying the Open Meeting Law, which allows private, executive sessions for nine different reasons (see "A look at the Open Meeting Law," page 8). For example, the Carlisle School Committee is organizing mediation in an effort to heal the rift between the school superintendent and the faculty that culminated in a no-confidence vote by the teachers' union last spring. Mediation is a process that needs a degree of confidentiality, and the law clearly allows this exemption. Other examples where closed-door meetings are allowed include litigation, land purchase or contract negotiations.
In the majority of cases, however, the business of town boards and committees is supposed to be conducted in public meetings.
The Town Clerk gives new committee members a booklet that includes the Open Meeting Law. Would additional training help board members more closely follow the letter and spirit of the law? For instance, it might be helpful to read the Guidelines issued by the Middlesex District Attorney's Office (posted on-line at: www.carlislemosquito.org).
The Open Meeting Law helps everyone, by weighing the needs for privacy against the public's rights for information. The law may sometimes seem like a hindrance (encouraging Mosquito reporters to buzz about annoyingly) but it is one of the best tools townspeople have to understand how their tax dollars are spent, and exactly why those dollars are necessary to help meet the needs of the community.
Everything in Carlisle seems to slow down during the summer. School's out, the Mosquito is published every two weeks, vacations away are the norm. Now it's back to school, and back to a weekly dose of the Mosquito. Back to the cacophony of issues that range from the primary elections to the hand wringing over the situation at the schools to the lawsuits over Coventry Woods to the cries of gloom and doom about the town budget, all of which seemed to have taken a vacation from our consciousness.
But summer's not officially over, and we're in that awkward period of not wanting it to end but not really being able to enjoy it as much as we'd like to. These next weekends are ones to be relished. We've had a wonderful summer in Carlisle. One of our favorite activities has been taking the grandchildren to Crane Beach in Ipswich. We would see Plum Island across the water and wonder how the people on that beach got there. After all, it is a bird sanctuary, isn't it? And it also is an island, isn't it? So how does one get there?
Late last month, we did some surfing — on the Web — to learn more about Plum Island. Yes, it is both an island and a bird sanctuary, and a small town, and a state park. It's a 10-mile-long barrier island, connected by a small bridge to Newburyport, at the mouths of the Merrimac and Parker rivers.
We made our first trek there a couple of weeks ago, after having lived here for nearly 20 years. Oh, what we've been missing! The northern half of the Island is residential, complete with small businesses. The southern half is all nature conservancy and state park. It's about 45 miles from Carlisle, up Route 495 to exit 55, Route 110 East. Then south on Route 1 to Newburyport, and out to the island. The folks at the entrance gate to the southern half provide maps of trails, parking areas and restrooms. They charge $5 a car as opposed to the 17 bucks you shell out at Crane Beach, and, if you have a yearly State Park pass, you can drive in free.
You can go all the way to Sandy Point State Park at the southern tip, and look over at Crane Beach to the west, or you can stop at any of the many parking areas in the wildlife refuge along the way and have miles of beach virtually to yourself. It's a paradise! There are walking trails over the salt marshes and lookout towers from which to spot egrets, Great Blue Heron, and all sorts of salt water-oriented birds. On the beach, the fishing and shelling are productive. Last time there, we collected quite a few sand dollars and saw a school of bluefish in a feeding frenzy just 50 feet off the beach. You can ride the surf and explore tidal pools.
You won't find the snack bars, showers, and lifeguards that populate Crane Beach, but you will travel back in time to a much more pristine, less crowded time. In short, you can keep to that slower pace that characterizes summer. At day's end, you can watch the sunset over the salt marshes and listen to the wind washing over them. No better place to relish the few remaining days of summer than at Plum Island.
For more information about Plum Island, check out www.plum-island.com. For information about the wildlife refuge and state park, check out www.fws.gov/northeast/parkerriver and www.mass.gov/dcr/parks/northeast/sndp.
© 2007 The