Civics Sunday: Massachusetts Open Meeting Law
Recently, Holliston Town Clerk Elizabeth Greendale conducted a workshop for board and committee members on the topic of Massachusetts’ Open Meeting Law. Liz asked the Holliston Reporter to attend to publicize the content and importance to our community. We quickly realized that Liz’s (and her colleague, Andrew Dowd, Northborough Town Clerk) topic had a dual audience – the members of boards and committees, and we, the citizens of Holliston.
In this edition of ‘Civics Sunday’ we will endeavor to outline what the Law means for ‘public bodies’ and the public at large.
Here are some formatting points to help you track the content:
- Text in quotation marks comes from the Attorney General’s Open Meeting Law Guide and / or Liz’s content.
- Text without quotation marks is content paraphrased from Liz’s content or added by the author.
- The Bold titles indicate the segments of Liz’s content.
A large crowd attended – necessitating the setting up of additional chairs. An impressive showing by our town’s volunteer board and committee members!
Liz opened with the reason for our Open Meeting Law. She quoted from the Attorney General’s Open Meeting Law Guide that was provided as a handout to all in attendance.
Purpose of the Law:
“The purpose of the Open Meeting Law is to ensure transparency in the deliberations on which public policy is based. Because the democratic process depends on the public having knowledge about the considerations underlying governmental action, the Open Meeting Law requires, with some exceptions, that meetings of public bodies be open to the public. It also seeks to balance the public’s interest in witnessing the deliberations of public officials with the government’s need to manage its operations efficiently.” (Attorney General’s Open Meeting Law Guide)
“A multi-member board, commission, committee, or sub-committee . . .however created, elected, appointed, or otherwise constituted, established to serve a public purpose.”
“Notice must be posted at LEAST 48 hours prior to the meeting, excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays. i.e.; a Monday night meeting must be posted before Thursday night.” FYI – the 48-hour period is measured by when the notice is stamped by the Town Clerk’s office. The recorded meeting notices are posted on the Committee Bulletin Board located in our Town Hall.
“An agenda must include a list of topics the chair reasonably anticipates will be discussed at the meeting.” Enough detail should be provided so citizens understand what is being discussed/decided.
Each board, commission, committee, or subcommittee has an odd number of members; i.e.; 3, 5, 7, or 9. A quorum is therefore the number of members that is a majority of those on the board, committee, etc. No business can be conducted if a quorum is not present. If a board, committee, etc. does not have enough active members to achieve a quorum, that body cannot meet until replacements are appointed to achieve a quorum.
“Emergency” is a sudden, generally unexpected occurrence or set of circumstances demanding immediate action.”
Common Concerns (aka ‘what if’):
“What if a new agenda item pops up?” The meeting notice/agenda should be updated – even within the 48-hour period, since the original notice/agenda were posted in compliance with the minimum 48-hour requirement.
“What if the Town Clerk can’t post in time?” It is the board/committee’s responsibility to work with the Town Clerk’s office to avoid such issues.
“What if a meeting starts with a quorum and then member(s) leave and there is no longer a quorum?” The meeting must adjourn when a quorum of members is no longer present.
“Meeting cancellations do not require 48-hours notice.” Please communicate the cancellation to the Town Clerk’s office. Rescheduled or continued meetings must meet all OML requirements
There are 10 exceptions to the Open Meeting Law that allow for Executive/Closed sessions:
- Issues related to reputation
- Negotiation strategy
- Collective bargaining strategy
- Security strategy
- Misconduct allegation investigation
- Real estate purchase / lease strategy
- Comply with state and federal laws
- Employment interviews
- Confer with a mediator
- Trade secrets / sensitive information
The board / committee must follow the OML steps for Executive session. “Convene in open session, state the reason for entering into executive session, take a roll call vote to go into executive session, and record in the minutes. Re‐convene in open session, before adjourning the meeting.”
Voting at Meetings:
The voting procedure: motion made, motion is seconded, discussion on the motion, vote on the motion – Yea, nay, or abstain. Chair announces the vote count.
“The Chair may send an email to confirm a meeting date or send an agenda.” Otherwise, e-mail should not be used to share thoughts/opinions, as it is not an ‘open meeting.’
“The Open Meeting Law requires public bodies to create and approve minutes in a timely manner. A “timely manner” is considered to be within the next three public body meetings or 30 days from the date of the meeting, whichever is later, unless the public body can show good cause for further delay.”
“Under the Open Meeting Law, the public is permitted to attend meetings of public bodies but is excluded from an executive session that is called for a valid purpose listed in the law. While the public is permitted to attend an open meeting, an individual may not address the public body without permission of the chair.” A question from the audience allowed Liz to explain how/why ‘public comment’ is a one-way presentation. Citizens can speak (respectfully) on any topic. Since the public comment is previously unknown, it is not on the agenda. Anything not published in the agenda cannot be discussed or acted upon at the meeting. Comments made by citizens related to topics published on the agenda are relevant and are part of the discussion/decision-making on that item.
The Open Meeting Law provides an option for a town to allow remote participation of public body members. Holliston has not opted to allow remote participation. It is worth noting that even IF remote participation is allowed, a quorum of members must be present at the scheduled meeting location.
For those who want to know everything about this law, please access the Attorney General’s Open Meeting Law Guide.
Publishers’ Note: Thank you Liz for inviting us and for reviewing the article to ensure accuracy.