Open Meeting Laws and Your Local Government
Understanding the public’s right to access meetings of public bodiesBy Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on March 16, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Ian T. Baxter
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- Has an Open Meeting Law Violation Occurred? Key Questions to Ask
- What To Do About Open Meeting Law Violations
“A central idea in the United States is that we are a government by the people,” says Ian T. Baxter, a state & local government law attorney in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“We are governed by our peers. And the expectation is that you, as a citizen, have access to the government. Every single citizen and person has access.”
How is the ideal of government transparency put into practice? One important way is through open meeting laws.
“Open meeting laws are geared toward the expectation that we have a right to know what our peers are deciding on our behalf,” says Baxter.
These laws require local and state government bodies to provide advance notice of official meetings and to make those meetings open and accessible to the public. This article will introduce open meeting law requirements and what to do if you think a governmental body is acting in violation of these laws.
Has an Open Meeting Law Violation Occurred? Key Questions to Ask
Open meeting acts can vary widely by state. Before taking any legal action, it’s essential to understand what the law requires. Speaking with an experienced state & local government law attorney is one of the best ways to determine if an open meeting violation has occurred.
Here are key questions to ask when researching your state’s open meeting laws or consulting with an attorney:
Is a Public Body Involved?
For open meeting laws to apply, there must be a meeting of a public body.
What is a public body? While definitions vary by statute, it’s generally any appointed or elected board, committee, subcommittee, or council with legislative, judicial, administrative, or public policy decision-making authority.
Public officials include:
- City council members
- County commissioners
- School board members
- Governing board members of municipal or state agencies
When public bodies meet, their deliberations and decisions must be out in the open. Citizens must have the opportunity to hear what officials discuss and provide feedback.
Is There an Official Public Meeting?
Not every meeting of people who are public officials is subject to open government laws. For example, there is no requirement that the municipality’s holiday office party be open to members of the public.
Official meetings, however, are required to be open.
An official meeting occurs when a quorum of members of a public body meets to deliberate or take action on public matters. For example, how should a new part of town be zoned? Should a new library be built? What is the school district’s budget? What infrastructure projects are most pressing?
A “quorum” is the minimum number of public officials that must be present to conduct official business. The specific number required will vary statewide depending on the public body.
For example, say a quorum is defined by law as a simple majority of members, and a local board of trustees has eight members. In that case, six board members must be present for a quorum. If a city council has ten members, it will need at least six council members present to conduct official business.
The bottom line is that whenever enough public officials are gathered to make official decisions on behalf of the public, their meetings must be open. Such meetings include:
- Public hearings
- Board meetings
- Legislative, administrative, or judicial proceedings
“I sit on my township’s zoning hearing board,” says Baxter. “And we’re subject to open meeting laws. All of our deliberations are done out in the open, in front of the public that wishes to attend. It’s to keep people informed who want to know.”
“Especially in the political environment we’re in now, a lack of transparency brings added question marks and feeds the fire of conspiracy. I think a way to address that is to make things as open as possible.”
Where and When is the Meeting Happening?
“Having meetings at a specific time at a stated location is the easiest way to ensure everyone has access,” says Baxter.
However, sometimes public bodies must meet in different locations or go entirely remote depending on circumstances.
For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Baxter says his local zoning board “had to switch to a format that allowed virtual attendance.” Since the end of the pandemic, “We’ve been able to revert to in-person meetings, and we no longer have an obligation to provide virtual access, but during Covid, it was a requirement. We even had to cancel meetings until we could facilitate that.”
States may set requirements for remote meetings. For example, Massachusetts’ requirements include:
- The types of technology that can be used
- Everyone must be audible to one another
- Virtual participants must be counted as “present” at the meeting, and their contributions must be included in the meeting minutes
On the one hand, technology can make public meetings more easily accessible. Citizens who want to attend and get informed can skip driving across town to a specific location. They can participate from home.
On the other hand, explains Baxter, “There were some large concerns about accessibility when the [remote requirement] was imposed. For individuals of a younger age, technology is second nature. But many people may not be as accustomed to using it.” Furthermore, there may be geographic or economic disparities in access to the internet and electronic devices that allow connectivity.
Though the Covid-19 pandemic has passed, there is a persisting question with remote public meetings: “How do we ensure that things are truly accessible? We can’t conduct meetings in secret. We also can’t just record them since the general public must be able to interact and participate. We can’t foreclose that participation.”
Did the Public Body Give Public Notice of the Meeting?
State laws set various requirements for notifying members of the public about meetings. At a minimum, notice must inform the public about the meeting location and time.
Notice requirements depend in part on the type of meeting:
- Regular meetings. For routine meetings, public bodies generally must post the meeting schedule at the offices of the relevant governmental body and online. If there’s a change to the regular meeting schedule (for example, the meeting day is switched from Tuesday to Thursday), the body must post the revised schedule.
- Special meetings. If there is no regular schedule or a meeting is planned beyond regular sessions, advance notice must be given. This may be done by posting the notice on the board or agency’s official bulletin, calling or mailing citizens who submitted a written request for advance notice, and posting the information on the official website. Other notice methods may be required by state law.
- Emergency meetings. When there’s an emergency, and the standard methods can’t give advance notice, state law may require notice to be given to news media that can publicize the meeting.
What To Do About Open Meeting Law Violations
If a public body conducted official business in violation of state open meeting laws, “There is a complaint process, typically handled through a state’s office of the attorney general,” says Baxter.
“Whether through the attorney general’s office or a private lawsuit, citizens can challenge legislation or policies enacted in violation of the open meeting laws.”
Since open meeting laws are complex and bringing a lawsuit can be complicated and time-consuming, it’s wise to seek legal counsel if you’re considering challenging the government. A lawyer can assess your potential legal claims and tell you whether there is a good cause of action or if alternative solutions exist through an official complaint process.
Many attorneys offer free consultations for potential clients, or they may count consultation fees toward their legal services. Initial consultations let you get legal advice and strategize your next steps.
As for when to seek legal help, Baxter advises people to act sooner rather than later. “If you have a bona fide claim, you should be seeking counsel as soon as possible. With the passage of time, your ability to fully flesh out details and evidence becomes increasingly difficult. Starting earlier also allows you to explore the merit and viability of any claim.”
To get the most out of a meeting, ask a lawyer informed questions such as:
- What is your experience handling open meeting claims against the government?
- What are your attorney fees and billing options?
- What are the rules for open meetings and closed sessions?
- What information or public records do I have a right to as a citizen?
- Have my rights to information or civic participation been violated?
- What are my options for fighting violations of open meeting laws?
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