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AG Says UMass Broke Open Meeting Law

The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees repeatedly violated the state's open meeting law during its search for a new president, according to an investigation by Attorney General Martha Coakley's office.

In a letter to the board obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, investigators with Coakley's office said members violated the law throughout the search process and that the violations were "wide-ranging and serious."

Investigators said the board failed to provide proper meeting notice and that when meeting notices were posted, they were not specific enough.

They also found that the qualifications of three finalists were inappropriately discussed in executive session and executive sessions were simply "continued" from one date to another instead of being posted separately.

Minutes from both open and executive sessions were short on detail, investigators from Coakley's Division of Open Government found.

Coakley is ordering the board to undergo Open Meeting Law training before appointing a new UMass-Amherst chancellor in September.

"This is a strong action that makes clear that these violations should not have occurred, requires the board to take corrective remedies, and works to ensure that the mistakes do not happen again," Coakley said in a statement.

She also ordered the full release of executive session minutes.

Chairman of the UMass Board of Trustees James Karam said the board sought to conduct a search process that was "fair, open and transparent and certainly one that conformed to relevant state law."

He said the presidential search committee held nine public meetings across the commonwealth, including daylong public forums on each of the five campuses. He also said the position was extensively advertised.
Karam said he believed the executive sessions conformed to state law, but understands that Coakley has a different view.

He said part of the reason for one of the closed-door sessions was because of the "very real risk of losing top candidates if those meetings were to be held in public."

"I acknowledge and respect the points the Attorney General has made, although we may not totally agree on all of the facts at hand," he said in a written response. "Future searches ... will be conducted in a manner that is fully consistent with the Open Meeting Law and with Attorney General's findings."

Investigators pointed to several meetings including a Sept. 17 search committee meeting at the UMass Club.

They said the public notice for the meeting did not include a listing of topics for the committee's consideration as required by the new version of the law. During the meeting, the committee voted to go into a private executive session.

Investigators said the committee could not provide them with minutes of that executive session.
"Therefore, we have no record of what actually occurred there," Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Sclarsic wrote in the letter to the board.

The search committee held another executive session meeting on Jan. 13 at the Hilton Boston Financial District without posting a public notice, according to investigators.

During the meeting, the search committee met with the remaining three candidates separately, interviewing each one for approximately 40 minutes.

The search committee discussed whether to forward these three candidates to the full board as finalists or to continue the search. Although the minutes do not reflect a vote, the committee decided to announce the three candidates as finalists, investigators said.

"Our concern here is not with the accuracy of the minutes," Sclarsic wrote. "Rather, the concern is that the Search Committee appears to have made a final decision in executive session without taking a vote, acting on some sense of consensus."

Following the lengthy search process, the board ultimately tapped Robert Caret to be the new president of the five-campus UMass system. Caret replaced departing UMass President Jack Wilson.

This program aired on August 5, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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