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editorial

Quorum rules are simple; state boards must comply

Without the presence of a quorum, administrative boards have no power to take binding votes or make official decisions: Few procedural rules are more elementary. It is inexcusable that professional licensing boards overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health have been flouting this basic rule for years. If the state’s boards of registration can’t comply with so straightforward a requirement, how can they be trusted to pass judgment on whether health care professionals are living up to far more stringent expectations?

As the Globe’s Todd Wallack reported recently, seven of the licensing boards supervised by the Department of Public Health have convened more than a dozen times in total during recent years despite lacking the legal quorum necessary to do business. Under Massachusetts law, a quorum consists of a majority of the total number of positions on the board. Thus, the 10-member Board of Registration in Pharmacy requires at least six members to be present for the board to act. Yet the pharmacy board has held meetings and taken binding votes with as few as four members on hand.

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There should be no gray area here: Massachusetts courts long ago determined that vacancies on a board do not change the quorum requirement; the attorney general’s office reaffirms the point in its guide to the state’s Open Meeting Law. In some cases, the statute creating a licensing board actually specifies the number of members needed for a quorum. In conducting business without a quorum, board members do more than disregard the law. They cast a shadow over every decision that results from such meetings, setting the stage for what will almost certainly be a wave of litigation challenging their rulings.

The Department of Public Health has not exactly covered itself in glory lately. Falsified testing at the state drug lab will almost certainly result in the vacating of many criminal convictions, and the New England Compounding Center horror has been linked to dozens of deaths from meningitis. News that the department’s boards of registration have cast scores of votes that may be null and void will only add to the turmoil.

The department’s new commissioner, Cheryl Bartlett, has ordered a review, and officials say they’ll implement new training to make sure board members adhere to quorum rules henceforth. But it is incumbent on the administration to fill these seats with conscientious individuals. Appointments to licensing panels are considered something of an honor, but with the honor goes a responsibility to know when meetings are scheduled — and to show up.

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