Open Meeting Law training offers guidance to public officials

A legal team from the Attorney General's office advised that advance notice, open deliberations, and public access are keys to compliance.

Assistant Attorney Generals Hanne Rush, left, and Kevin Manganaro provided an overview of the law and answered questions from the audience. — Janet Hefler

The purpose of the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law is to balance government transparency with government efficiency. That was the message a legal team from the office of Attorney General Maura Healey delivered during a training session that filled the Katharine Cornell Theatre last Thursday.

An audience of about 70 people included town clerks, selectmen, board and committee members, and municipal employees from the Island’s six towns. Over the course of the two-hour event, Assistant Attorney Generals Kevin Manganaro and Hanne Rush provided an overview of the law and answered many questions from the audience.

The Open Meeting Law (OML) was revised as part of the 2009 Ethics Reform Bill, according to the Attorney General’s website. Responsibility for statewide enforcement of the law is centralized in the office of the Attorney General. The Division of Open Government provides training, responds to inquiries, investigates complaints, and when necessary, makes findings and orders remedial action to address violations of the law.

Mr. Manganaro explained that the OML applies to “public bodies,” defined as as multimember boards, commissions, committees or subcommittees, whether elected, appointed, or otherwise, that are created to serve a public purpose. Charter schools, boards of selectmen, school committees, and planning boards, regional school committees and planning agencies, and county boards and commissions are considered public bodies. However, the state senate and house of representatives are not, Mr. Manganaro added, which brought a laugh from the audience.

High school booster clubs, Parent-Teacher Organizations, and Republican/Democratic town committees also are not subject to the OML. Nor are town meetings, which are governed by other sections of the Massachusetts General Laws.

The OML applies to meetings that include deliberation, whether oral or written, including email, among a quorum of a public body on any public business within its jurisdiction, Mr. Manganaro said. Using that guideline, for example, a gathering of a group of selectmen to view a property under consideration for purchase would not be subject to the OML, so long as any discussion about the purchase is conducted during an open meeting.

‘More is better’

The OML boils down to five basics, Mr. Manganaro said: Notice must be posted for meetings. Meetings must be open to the public, unless a public body enters into executive session. Minutes must be kept for open and executive sessions. Members of public bodies must sign certification that they have read and understand the OML’s requirements and consequences of its violation. There is a complaint process available.

In regard to meeting notices, a public body must post notice of a meeting at least 48 hours in advance, excluding weekend days and holidays. For example, a Tuesday meeting would require posting on the previous Friday.

Notice must include the meeting date, time, place, and a list of topics the chairman “reasonably anticipates will be discussed at the meeting,” as well as the date and time the notice was posted.

When asked how specific the topics should be, Mr. Manganaro said the agenda should include a heading under which they are listed. “More is always better,” he said. “It’s not appropriate to just say ‘new business’ or ‘old business,’ because that doesn’t give the public an understanding of what will be talked about.”

Mr. Manganaro also addressed the question of what to do if a topic comes up that requires revising a posted agenda.

“It is not a violation to discuss in a meeting anything the chair didn’t anticipate 48 hours prior to the meeting,” Mr. Manganaro said. “We do recognize certain things do occur in the meantime.

“If it is a topic that the chair believes is going to be of significant public interest, if it’s something controversial in town, we strongly encourage public bodies to delay discussion of that, until it can be given its own 48-hour notice,” he added.

Meeting cancellations, however, do not require 48 hours’ notice.

An audience member asked how much leeway is allowed in topics discussed under the heading of “other business,” which seems vague.

“The language that we’ve said is advisable with meeting notices is that they contain a section that says ‘Other topics that were not reasonably anticipated by the chair 48 hours in advance,’” Mr. Manganaro said. “Because people do come with business that may not have been anticipated.”

Minutes matter

Ms. Rush took the reins in discussing executive sessions. She reminded everyone that a meeting must be convened in open session before going into executive session.

An announcement made about going into executive session should be as detailed as possible, she added, without defeating the purpose of confidentiality. Ms. Rush said the announcement should specify the purpose or purposes for the executive session. She suggested printing out the OML list of 10 purposes acceptable for executive session in advance of a meeting, as a reference to cite for the public.

Ms. Rush also discussed meeting minutes, which must be maintained for both open and executive sessions, with the same amount of detail. A list of documents and other exhibits used at a meeting should be included at the end of the minutes, she said, but do not have to be retained with the minutes.

Asked about what format should be used, Ms. Rush said, “Minutes should not be a transcript; that’s too time-consuming for people to read. They should be a summary of the meeting, but with more detail than ‘a discussion was had about this.’”

The minutes of an open-session meeting must be made available within 10 days of a request, whether in draft or final form, Ms. Rush said. When asked what is considered a timely manner for a public body to approve minutes, she said that depending on how often a board meets, the previous meeting’s minutes should be approved at its next meeting.

“Executive-session minutes must be reviewed periodically by the chair or the public body to determine if the purpose for the executive session remains,” Ms. Rush said. “A public body must respond within 10 days to a request for executive-session minutes. It must provide the minutes if they are no longer exempt from disclosure, or undertake review at its next meeting or within 30 days.”

Asked by The Times if executive-session minutes must be approved in executive session, Ms. Rush said they do not.

“But keeping in mind that records used by public bodies during an open session are public documents,” she added, “if they’re going to have any substantive discussion about the executive-session minutes or they want to revise them, then they may want to do it in executive session to protect the confidentiality of the records.”

Following the OML training session, a small group of people attended the “Attorney General’s Community Action Hours” from 6 to 8 pm. Marcony Almeida-Barros, director of the Attorney General’s Community Engagement Division, and outreach coordinator Rodrigo Plaza described the Attorney General’s office’s work in helping and defending consumers, and highlighted the details of the state’s new Earned Sick Time and Domestic Workers laws.

West Tisbury town clerk Tara Whiting, who organized and made the arrangements for the two events, said she was very pleased by the large turnout.