Elected city and town officials need to be free to tell voters what they would do if reelected. Unfortunately, some lawyers representing municipalities don’t seem to understand that.
Attorney General Andrea Campbell has issued guidance that should settle, once and for all, the unfortunate legal opinions that have chilled free speech around municipal elections.
In 2019, this board criticized a legal opinion issued by Newton’s city solicitor, which cautioned city councilors running for reelection not to give their positions publicly on projects pending before the council. The solicitor said the councilors were acting in a “quasi-judicial role” when approving projects and taking a public stance would prejudice those proceedings.
Last November, a similar controversy arose in Waltham when the city solicitor wrote a memo warning incumbent city councilors not to discuss current issues pending before the council in political forums. Candidates said the ruling chilled their ability to communicate honestly with voters about important local issues.
This board encouraged the state’s ethics commission or attorney general to weigh in, and Campbell did.
On Nov. 9, days after the election, in response to the Waltham controversy, Campbell updated a frequently asked questions page on the attorney general’s website to answer the question of whether members of a public body may share their views with the public on issues that are currently before or that might come before that body.
Campbell’s answer was, in short, yes.
Campbell wrote that the state’s open meeting law does not restrict candidates from speaking to the public. Rather, it restricts communication among a quorum of a public body — usually a majority of the body — outside of a public meeting. Even if a quorum of the body is present, a candidate could express their views in a public event “as long as the other public body members do not respond,” Campbell’s guidance says.
In other words, if a majority of city councilors attend a public voter forum where they are asked about a local project under their consideration, they can each answer the question as long as they address their answers to the public, not to each other.
The only caveat, Campbell adds, is that “public body members should not direct their comments to their colleagues nor respond to each other’s comments.” If city councilors end up debating or deliberating in public, that could violate the open meeting law.
Campbell added that her office will interpret the open meeting law “in a manner that is consistent with First Amendment protections for political speech.”
Campbell, in her ruling, rightly understands that the state’s open meeting law — which requires public bodies to deliberate only in public — was intended to promote, not chill, public discourse. If, for example, housing policy is a defining issue in a city council election, a voter will have a far harder time distinguishing between candidates if a city councilor cannot give their position on a particular housing project. This strikes us as the right approach.
In the coming municipal election season, city and town solicitors will now be on notice that they must adhere to the attorney general’s guidance. That’s a good thing, because in an era rife with political misinformation and low-turnout elections, the more political discourse can occur, the better the results for democracy.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.