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Arlington won't fight ruling on violation

Town to seek new law on interviews

Arlington selectmen aren't going to fight a recent Middlesex district attorney's ruling that they violated the state's open meeting law when they interviewed semifinalists for the town manager job behind closed doors a year ago.

But they have told town lawyer John Maher to draft legislation to change state law to make these types of interviews legal in the future.

The ruling, and the issue it raises, could have far-reaching effects not only in Arlington but in other communities, Arlington officials say. It would force towns to make the names of job semifinalists public and, thereby, deter some job candidates who do not want their employers to know they are looking for work, unless there is a good chance they will get the job they are seeking.

''People won't apply for these jobs if their names are made public" too early, said Maher. ''They don't want their names out there if they are one of 14 candidates. If they are one of three candidates, they'll do it."

If Maher's proposed legislation is successful, then communities may interview job semifinalists in closed-door sessions, and as a result, keep the identities of the job seekers confidential longer.

Maher said that would create a bigger, and therefore better, pool of applicants.

Also, officials said, if the district attorney's ruling holds, it would give more power to citizen screening committees that usually are created to cull through dozens of applications and come up with semifinalists. If semifinalists' names must be made public, these committees would probably not forward six to 10 candidates to the Board of Selectmen or any other appointing authority but rather two or three names, who would in essence be finalists.

''If we allow the citizens committee to do all of the whittling down, then you eliminate the discretion that selectmen should have," Selectman Charles Lyons said.

The district attorney's ruling came after Town Meeting member Jacqueline Harrington complained to the office about the closed-door interviews.

Harrington said she initiated the inquiry, because people deserve all the information that they have the right to have, and because she knew that the town would be conducting other important job searches in the near future.

This week, for example, the School Committee is interviewing four finalists for the superintendent's post.

Also, Harrington said, the issues involved are not about privacy, but a ''matter of the public's right to know."

Harrington said she does not think that requiring semifinalists to be publicly interviewed will cut into the pool of qualified candidates for a municipal job. Nor does she feel that allowing a screening committee to pick finalists is a bad idea.

According to the ruling, the selectmen met illegally in executive session through December 2003, during the town manager search.

At those closed meetings, on Dec. 6 and 7, 2003, the selectmen interviewed six semifinalists, chosen by the town manager search committee.

Selectmen also interviewed three other candidates that the selectmen chose themselves.

On Dec. 15, after the selectmen interviewed the three finalists in a public interview, they chose Brian Sullivan as the town's new manager. He started the job in February.

In her ruling, assistant district attorney Loretta Lillios said selectmen should have made the Dec. 6 and 7 interviews public, since the candidates had already been screened by the search committee.

''Once the screening committee votes to recommend a candidate or candidates to the parent body, all further consideration of such candidates by the board must be conducted in open session," she wrote.

She said selectmen also violated open meeting laws when they discussed in those same executive sessions ''procedures that would guide the interviews and . . . specific questions to pose to the semifinalists."

Maher said the selectmen held the closed-door meetings based on his advice. Now he's advising them against appealing it.

''Our efforts are better directed toward changing the legislation," he said.

He hopes that the Massachusetts Municipal Association and even other communities support the effort, when it gets underway.

A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Municipal Association said that because of the agency's holiday schedule, there has been no official action taken, but Chelmsford Town Manager Bernard Lynch said he'd probably support Maher's efforts.

''It would add to the pool of applicants, if they knew that they could apply with a greater degree of confidentiality," he said.

As for concerns about open government, he said, ''There's always a balance that has to be struck.

''Open government is certainly something that is in the public interest, but hiring the best person for the job is in the public interest as well," he said.

Lillios has asked the board to amend the meeting minutes of the controversial sessions in question, to include summaries of the nine semifinalist interviews, and then release those minutes to the public.

That's a problem, Selectman Kevin Greeley said, because the selectmen promised the candidates ''anonymity until the final round. Even now, they don't want their employers to know they were looking, because it sends a message that they are somewhat dissatisfied.

''I'm not sure what is the bigger breach: the open meeting law or the consequences to people's careers," he said.

Maher said he's also been talking to Lillios about ''how to handle the release of the semifinalists' names," but no decision has been made.

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