🛠 Legal Tools for Dealing with Local Governments

Over the past few months, hundreds of Massachusetts residents have contacted me with concerns about COVID mandates and restrictions imposed by local officials: health boards, school committees, town councils, etc.  The people who contact me want to know what they can do to lawfully oppose local restrictions and get life back to normal for themselves and their children.

Here are some of the best legal tools a concerned citizen can use when dealing with his local officials.

Open Meeting Laws

Key Points:

Notice:

  • All local government bodies must comply with Massachusetts’ Open Meeting Laws.
  • Notice of all meetings must be posted at least 48 hours in advance.
  • Typically, notice is posted on the town’s website but it can also be published in a local newspaper or a hardcopy of the notice may be posted outside of town hall.
  • The notice must list all topics that will be voted on at the meeting.
  • If your local officials fail to comply with the Open Meeting Laws, you can file a complaint against the town with the Massachusetts Attorney General.
  • The complaint must be submitted on the form provided by the Attorney General.  For a copy of the form, see below.

Public Comment:

  • The Open Meeting Laws encourage, but do not require, public comment sessions at each meeting.
  • Whether public comments will be heard is determined by the board chairman.
  • Most chairmen will allow residents to speak for only three meetings.
  • Board members will not answer questions during a public comment session.
  • Although Massachusetts law does not require local government boards to hear public comments, some town charters or bylaws do require time for comments.

Sources:

Public Records Request

Key Points:

  • All local officials must provide public records to citizens upon request.
  • The definition of a “public record” is very broad and includes almost all paperwork and correspondence (letters, fax, emails, text messages, etc.) in which governmental business is mentioned.
  • Requests must be made to the town’s “Records Access Officer” (RAO) who is often also the town clerk.
  • There is no strict requirement for how a public records request must be made.  The request can be made via email, fax, or letter.
  • The RAO has ten days to respond to the request and provide the documents being sought.
  • The state discourages towns from collecting a fee for providing public documents.  But the town may still bill a citizen for the time and expense necessary to comply with a records request.  If the town intends to charge you for a records request, the RAO should first provide you with an estimate of the expense.

Sources:

Declaratory Judgment

Key Points:

  • If your local government violates the law (municipal, state, or federal), you can file a complaint in Superior Court seeking a declaratory judgment.
  • According to M.G.L. c. 231A, § 2, a complaint for declaratory judgment “may be used in the superior court to enjoin and to obtain a determination of the legality of the administrative practices and procedures of any municipal, county or state agency or official which practices or procedures are alleged to be in violation of the Constitution of the United States or of the constitution or laws of the commonwealth, or are in violation of rules or regulations promulgated under the authority of such laws, which violation has been consistently repeated.”
  • Often the complaint is filed along with a motion for preliminary injunction asking the Superior Court to put an immediate stop to whatever local action is at issue until the matter may be heard on its merits.
  • You will likely need an attorney to prepare and file such a complaint.

Sources:

Local Charters and Bylaws

Key Points:

  • Each city and town has its own set of local laws—bylaws, charters, or both.
  • Before engaging your local officials, you should take the time to read and understand the pertinent sections of your town’s laws.
  • Most bylaws and charters provide mechanisms for residents to influence or change local policies.  Mechanisms may include the voters’ right to present petitions to their local officials for consideration, the right to recall elected officials, and the ability to add referendums to their town election ballots.

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