Vol. II No. 04 2/15/2021
Open Meeting Law
The Open Meeting Law (OML) is not a suggestion or guideline, it is the law with "fair and consistent enforcement" by the Office of the Attorney General of the Commonwealth.
The purpose of the OML is to "promote openness and transparency in government." It enables voters to understand not only the decisions made, but the deliberative process reaching it. OML benefits voters and is an underpinning of democratic rule.
However, OML can be cumbersome for officials. Public service is hard work. At times those who work on committees, commissions and boards do the work with more criticism than compensation. Nonetheless, it is incumbent on all officials, elected and appointed, to follow OML and operate within its boundaries. We owe our officials a sincere thank you and sincere understanding that public service is not for everyone. While we understand why some may chafe at the confines of the OML, it is no less incumbent upon them to follow it. If the work is too burdensome, if OML too complicated, they can step down or decline to run. They cannot decide to ignore the law.
Here is an overview of OML:
- Almost all meetings must be held in public.
- Meetings must be advertised to enable the public to attend.
- Records of all meetings must be created and maintained according to the specification of OML.
- Subcommittees of a board, commission or committee are equally subject to the OML.
All deliberations and decisions must be made in an advertised public meeting reached by a vote and with at least a quorum present. Private deliberations by a committee, commissioner or board, or a quorum thereof, are usually not allowed. For example, when there is no public access to site visits, questions or comments by members of the Planning Board or Conservation Commission are not permitted.
There are exceptions to the OML such as Executive Sessions. It is better to err on the side of caution and assume a public body – board, commission, committee, subcommittee – must meet in public.
There are consequences for flouting OML. When the OML is not observed, consequences ensue. One among many is "nullification of any action taken…" Another is that a member of a committee, commission or board can in some circumstances lose their right to vote. OML is meant to assure transparency in government.
Darwin. Photo: Joan Gallos.