So Much for Open Government

In a column published in the Monitor yesterday, House Speaker Bill O’Brien and others argued that the vote to override the governor’s veto of the House redistricting plan was conducted properly. He described the failure to publish the governor’s veto message in the House Journal prior to the vote as a red herring and justified his tactical strategy of calling for a vote without notice to the public on the grounds of expediency.

In fact, the requirement to publish the veto message prior to a vote to override is required by the state Constitution. Part II, Art. 44 of the Constitution says that if the governor vetoes a bill, “he shall return it, with his objections, to that house in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the objections at large on their journal, and proceed to reconsider it.” Although the Constitution does not say “then proceed to reconsider it,” the sequence of the phrases in the sentence leads to the conclusion that the veto message must be entered into the Journal before reconsideration.

Given that the Constitution was written before we had electronic communication, it makes perfect sense for the framers to require that a veto message be recorded in the Journal for everyone to read before proceeding with a vote. Even in the digital age, legislators are entitled to see what they are voting on before casting their votes.

More important, the public is entitled to know what business the House is conducting. The House “Calendar and Journal” is the only notice that the public receives of the issues that will be considered during a House session. The Constitution requires that the House gallery be kept open to enable the public to observe the functioning of their government.

That right is hollow if the public is not provided with notice of the business being conducted.

Our Right-to-Know Law states that “openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society.”

The speaker can flout a statute, but he cannot flout the Constitution. Part 1, Art. 8 of the Constitution states that “all power residing originally in, and being derived from, the people, all the magistrates and officers of government are their substitutes and agents, and at all times accountable to them. Government therefore, should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive. To that end, the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.”

I could not have said it better. So much for transparency in government.

(Rep. Gary B. Richardson of Hopkinton is the Democratic floor leader.)