While it may be true that public meetings can be a bit dry at times, their importance in the operation of cities and towns throughout the country cannot be overstated. Local government is the backbone of our democratic society. But how these meetings function and are handled at town halls and meeting centers throughout the Commonwealth requires rules that may sometimes confound boards and commissions, most of which are populated by volunteers.
At the request of the Marion Board of Selectmen, Carolyn Murray of the law firm KP Law gave a nearly 90-minute presentation delving into the most salient aspects of the Open Meeting Law.
Murray began by saying that everything one needs to know on this topic can be found in Massachusetts General Law Chapter 38 sections 18-25. She said the point of public meetings is to remove “the element of secrecy surrounding deliberations and discussions by public bodies.” She said that for purposes of this presentation a “public body” was any appointed or elected board or committee.
Murray established what a “quorum” means and how that quorum of the public body is to conduct the business of the town. She drove home the point that individuals who are members of a public body should never gather to discuss a piece of business before them for deliberation outside the public meeting format.
Even the appearance of secrecy should be avoided, she cautioned. As an example, Murray used a site visit where a quorum of a public body may be assembled. Individuals might ask questions, but she said that offering an opinion or talking amongst themselves should be avoided.
During public meeting, Murray said that members of the public body should not continue discussing a point deliberated on during the open meeting. “Any communication, where it could be seen that you are weighing-in on a matter that has come before the board should be refrained from.” Opinions may be considered deliberations, she noted, including electronic transmissions (i.e. email, messaging via social media, or text).
Murray spent considerable time informing the group on proper meeting conduct both inside an open meeting or if the public body attends another board’s meeting. “If a board member speaks at another board’s meeting, that person should make it clear they are not speaking for the body. She also warned against the mistake of responding to email by “reply all,” saying, “Assume that email may be forwarded to unintended recipients; it could end-up in the local newspaper or on a blog.” To make things easier, she said simply, “Refrain from making comments and don’t ask for anyone’s opinion, ideas, feelings or beliefs.… Remember applicants have the right to due process.”
Murray’s presentation covered public or open meeting postings and what a good agenda should include. Beside the necessity of having the public notice of an open meeting posted 48 hours prior to the date of the meeting, the associated agenda “should contain enough detail to inform the public.”
The exception to the 48-hour notice would be emergency meetings. “You can’t plan for an emergency,” Murray began, noting such events as natural disasters or public health and safety matters, “such as COVID-19.” But she said the emergency meeting should be posted as soon as possible and, if possible, should also include the next regular meeting details “in case ratification of what was decided during the emergency meeting is necessary.”
Meeting minutes were briefly discussed with Murray saying such minutes need not be a transcript of the meeting but instead a detailed summary of discussions and any motions and voting that took place. “Minutes are public records and should be completed within 30 days of the meeting date.”
With COVID-19 marginalizing face-to-face public meetings, Murray talked about the accessibility required of remote platform meetings such as Zoom. Common sense such as making sure everyone’s phone or computer microphone is muted to avoid crosstalk is important. Roll calls for voting during such open meetings ensure accurate voting on deliberated matters. And, she said, “Members of the public board must be clearly audible to all.”
Other matters Murray reminded the attendees of were when and how executive session meetings may take place, minutes for such meetings, and when these minutes may be released to the public. She also touched on how a public body should handle any complaints received with respect to breaches of the Open Meeting Law.
An Open Meeting Law complaint must be lodged with the public body within 30 days of the alleged violation; the public body must respond and forward the complaint to the Attorney General’s Office within 14 days of receiving it and should include remedial actions taken if any, and a complaint may be filed with the Attorney General’s office after 30 days from the date the complaint was filed with the public body.
A second session of this annual Open Meeting Law review was scheduled to be held on October 28.
By Marilou Newell