Don't Miss Out

Subscribe to OCA's News & Alerts.

Raw Milk Advocates Call on Attorney General Coakley to Investigate MDAR Commissioner Scott Soares


May 17, 2010
PRESS ADVISORY
ATTENTION:
Massachusetts Politics, State House Reporters                          
CONTACT: Alexis Baden-Mayer, 202-744-0853, alexis[a]organicconsumers.org
Jan Buhrman, 508-360-4491, jan[a]kitchenporch.com
John Mayer, 925-681-9780, johnm[a]organicconsumers.org

Raw Milk Advocates Call on Attorney General Coakley to Investigate MDAR Commissioner Scott Soares

Scores of Citizens Denied Access to Public Hearing on Controversial MDAR Proposal Against Raw Milk
BOSTON - The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) blocked scores of citizens from participating in a public hearing held on Monday, May 10, 2010, to examine controversial proposed regulations restricting public access to raw milk.  The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) has sent a formal letter of complaint (see below) to Attorney General Martha Coakley seeking a full investigation of what is a serious violation of the state's open meetings law.  OCA is a national organization with thousands of members in Massachusetts.  It promotes healthy organic foods such as raw milk.

Last Monday, May 10, hundreds of citizens, and at least one dairy cow, descended on the State Capitol to protest and testify against proposed MDAR regulations that would end, for all intents and purposes, the ability of most Massachusetts citizens to obtain fresh raw milk directly from the farm.  The proposed regulations would put out of business many family farms during these hard economic  times.  

Despite the peaceful nature of the public hearing, scores were kept from attending the proceedings and were not provided with any alternative means to hear, see or participate in them.

"These dictatorial proposed rule changes have sparked outrage among Massachusetts milk drinkers and dairy farmers," said Jan Buhrman, a chef and farmer advocate who attended the hearing.  "The Department of Agriculture knew this was a contentious issue, and yet the hearing was held in a room much too small for the number of attendees.  We call upon Attorney General Coakley to conduct a prompt and thorough investigation and force MDAR and Commissioner Soares to comply with Massachusetts law regarding public meetings."

Commissioner Soares has violated the Massachussetts open meetings law.  The proper and immediate sanction is to do it right - open this process anew and conduct another public hearing with no lock-outs and full and fair public participation.

Attorney General Martha Coakley can be reached at (617) 727 2200, ago[a]state.ma.us

Robert Nasdor, Director, Division of Open Government, can be reached at (617) 727 2200, Robert.Nasdor[a]state.ma.us

MDAR Commissioner Scott Soares can be reached at (617) 626 1701, Scott.Soares[a]state.ma.us

THE COMPLAINT:

May 13, 2010
Attorney General Martha Coakley
Office of the Attorney General
One Ashburton Place, 20th Floor
Boston, Massachusetts  02108
 
Via Email, Fax and Overnight Certified Mail
 
Attn: Robert Nasdor, Division of Open Government
Re: Open Meeting Law Violation
 
Dear Attorney General Coakley:

I am writing to ask you to investigate an open meeting law violation that occurred on Monday, May 10, 2010 during a hearing conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources ("DAR").

The meeting occurred pursuant to a notice advertising changes to the DAR's regulations regarding raw milk.  It took place in meeting rooms D and E on the second floor of 100 Cambridge Street in Boston.  A number of people (we estimate between 50 and 75) were prevented from entering the hearing room by DAR staff who stated that allowing additional people to attend the hearings would exceed the rooms' capacity. These people were directed to another room that lacked any visual or sound connection to the hearing room. Only as individuals left the hearing room were additional people allowed, on a one-by-one basis, to enter the hearing room.  As a result, a large number of interested persons were prevented from attending the meeting at all.

I strongly believe that preventing people from entering the meeting violates the open meeting law, which provides:

All meetings of a governmental body shall be open to the public and any person shall be permitted to attend any meeting except as otherwise provided by this section.
G.L. c. 30A, § 11A1/2. 

In this case many "person[s]" were not "permitted to attend" this meeting.  No exceptions in § 11A ½ apply, as there was no declaration of an executive session and no basis for excluding anyone.  The same is true under the version of the Open Meeting Law that will become effective on June 1, 2010.  G.L. c. 30A, § 20(a).

There is no exception for a room that is too small, as DAR claimed. I recognize that there are codes limiting the number of people in hearing rooms.  That places the burden on the agency to secure a large enough room or at least to provide for video and audio feeds into and from any room holding people who are turned away from the live hearing.  Responsibility for the size of the room falls upon the agency having control over the arrangements, not upon members of the public who are trying to exercise their rights to address and petition their government.  Failing to provide adequate space cannot be allowed as an excuse for non-compliance with the open meeting law.

Moreover, the DAR itself anticipated a large amount of interest in its proposed regulations.  In an attempt to reduce attendance, it posted an announcement on its website after hours on Friday, May 7, attempting to withdraw a controversial provision of the proposed regulations and contacted at least one large organization, which withdrew its request for its members to attend.  Enforcing the government's open meeting responsibilities to allow "any person . . . to attend any meeting" is particularly important when the agency tries to match room size and audience by taking active steps to reduce attendance instead of providing a large enough room, with overflow capability by video and audio feed.  The DAR is not, after all, without resources to comply with the minimal open meeting burdens that the legislature has imposed upon it.
 
I respectfully request an investigation.
 
Signed,
 
Alexis Baden-Mayer, Esq.
Political Director
Organic Consumers Association

 
cc: Deval Patrick, Governor
      Ian A. Bowles, Secretary
      Scott J. Soares, Commissioner


###

Learn more at www.organicconsumers.org/raw-milk