WORCESTER – The Worcester City Council is preparing to vote on an order at tonight’s council meeting from the Economic Development Committee, but a local advocacy group is calling foul.
On Monday, Sept. 25, Accurate Worcester Assessment on Real Estate [AWARE] sent out a release claiming that the Economic Development Committee was in violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law when it allowed the Worcester Regional Research Bureau [WRRB] to present it’s May 2017 report on Tax Rates at the committee’s meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 19.
AWARE claims the presentation violated the Open Meeting Law because it was not part of the meeting’s agenda.
“During the September 19th Meeting of the Economic Development Committee, the above agenda items were ignored,” the release stated referring to the single agenda item that didn’t include the Research Bureau’s presentation.
The statement from AWARE read: “During the meeting, the WRRB made a presentation, lasting more than an hour on a report that had been published by the organizations in May, 2017. The report contained their viewpoint and recommendations regarding how Worcester should raise taxes on residential property owners and lower the commercial tax rate.”
Massachusetts Open Meeting law states that if a notice is revised, the revision must also conspicuously record both the date and the time the original notice was posted as well as the date and time the last revision was posted.
“There is no violation,” District 1 City Councilor Anthony J. Economou, Chairman of the City’s Economic Development Committee said.
“It was stated at the May meeting, that it would be presented at the September meeting,” Economou added.
In an email to TWIW on Sept. 25, City Solicitor David M. Moore said, “There was no violation. The Open Meeting Law requires the agenda to include the ‘topics’ to be discussed – it does not require disclosure of the mechanics of any discussion. While only members of the committee have a right to speak, a chair may allow members of the public to speak at committee meetings.
“While speaking, sometimes members of the public pass out photos or other items to prove their points. There is nothing to prevent a committee from allowing a member of the public to make a presentation regarding a topic which was included on the agenda,” Moore added.
During the May 23 meeting of the Economic Development Committee Meeting, Timothy J. McGourthy, Executive Director of WRRB was called upon to provide information regarding the report. It was at that time Councilor Economou stated that McGourthy would present at a “future” meeting, not specifying a date.
[Editor’s note: Video of the meeting can be seen here. At approximately the twenty-minute mark Councilor Economou states that McGourthy will present at a future meeting.]
“It should have been on the agenda,” Crowell said. “They should at least have had the agenda revised.”
“I testified to everything on the agenda back in May,” Gary Vecchio, President of the Shrewsbury Street Neighborhood Association and Tax Policy Committee member, said. “If I knew there was going to be an additional agenda item, I would have attended the meeting.”
“I’m not sure if it is an Open Meeting Law violation, but it certainly speaks to a lack of transparency in our government,” Councilor-at-Large Michael T. Gaffney said in an e-mail on Monday, Sept. 25.
Councilor Gaffney added, “The Chamber and Research Bureau have been pushing for higher taxes on the working poor while calling for TIFs for wealthy investors and corporations.”
AWARE is calling for agenda item 8a at tonight’s City Council Meeting be null and void.
“The item [8a] should not not be considered,” Joan Crowell, President of AWARE said in a phone interview on Sept. 25. “There was a lack of communication along the line and it’s embarrassing to the city.”
Furthermore, AWARE is taking a stance against the agenda item itself, which reads:
Request City Manager request Chamber of Commerce and the Worcester Regional Research Bureau work together to provide a report to City Council as to how properties have been impacted in the town of Auburn since implementing the process of moving to a single tax rate over the last eleven (11) years.
“It’s like comparing watermelons and grapes,” Vecchio said.