Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law

A number of people have been asking about the details of the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law.

There are three separate laws. The one relating to Cities, Towns, and Districts is Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 39, Section 23B. Some terms are defined in Chapter 39, Section 23A.

The Attorney General has issued a set of guidelines on interpreting and applying the Open Meeting Law.

There is case law referred to in the Attorney General's guidelines which specifies that committees (or subcommittees), created by an agency that is itself subject to the Law, are also subject to the Law, even if they are only advisory committees. [See Nigro v. Conservation Commission of Canton, 17 Mass. App. Ct.433 (1984).] As stated in the Attorney General's guidelines:
The fact that the jurisdiction of the subcommittee or special purpose committee extends only to making recommendations to the parent governmental body does not render the Law inapplicable.
What to Look For

This Law is there to protect the public... including you. Here are the specifics of what you should expect for how meetings are conducted when an agency -- or a committee or task force established by it -- is subject to the Law:
  1. All meetings are open to the public.
  2. All meetings are announced to the public at least 48 hours in advance, where Sundays do not count.
  3. All meetings have agendas likewise announced at least 48 hours in advance.
  4. Summaries of all meetings will be taken, and made available to the public upon request. A reasonable time frame is 2-4 weeks to write and approve the summaries, and 10 days to respond to a public request for the document.
  5. A quorum of committee members is half, unless the committee otherwise issues instructions in advance.
  6. The committee may not enter into Executive Session, except for nine (9) narrow reasons. Basically, the reasons are so limited that it is unlikely that an advisory committe or task force would ever have justification to enter into Executive Session.
  7. If desiring to enter into Executive Session, this must be preceded by a public meeting in which the reason for doing so is given, discussed, and a roll call vote is taken by the members.
  8. Summaries of Executive Session also must be written down. They are to be released to the public once the reason for entering Executive Session no longer applies.
What you cannot expect is the opportunity for the public to talk at an open meeting. The committee itself decides who they recognize to speak at their meetings, and no time is required to be set aside for public comment. The exceptions to this, for example, are the public meetings that are required to be held in direct response to each regulatory filing under Article 80. Most task force meetings are not in this latter category.

What to Do If There is a Violation

The District Attorney is charged with enforcing this Law (for Cities, Towns, and Districts). Members of the public who believe that the Law has been violated should contact the District Attorney's office; the Appellate Division usually handles the inquiries. Alternatively, three members of the public may file suit in court. A court may issue an order invalidating any action taken at a meeting that violates the Law, but it is necessary for the complaint to be registered within 21 days of public knowledge of the infraction. Court hearings on Open Meeting Law cases are required to be on an expedited timetable.

Since I have been involved in this to some extent recently, I encourage members of the public who believe the Law may have been violated by one of the task forces to contact me to discuss the issue. Research I have done into the public watchdog groups indicates that most violations are inadvertent: a particular committee does not realize that they are subject to the Open Meeting Law, or they do not know what actions they are required to follow to be in compliance.

More Information

More information can be found at the Massachusetts Common Cause website for their project, "Massachusetts Campaign for Open Government".


Carol said...

Thanks for this. Do you know if a task force, such as a mayor's task force, is considered a governmental body? I would think it is.

Michael Pahre said...

Yes, according to a letter from the Suffolk County District Attorney's office. See here.