Throughout the year, councils may meet for a variety of different reasons. Any meeting where public business is discussed must follow the directives of the Open Meeting Law as established under Massachusetts law. Otherwise, councils are encouraged to use any meeting formats or strategies that might best serve their members and their applicants.
Under Massachusetts law, meetings of a local "government body," including an LCC, must be open to the public (M.G.L.c.30A, 18-25). The Open Meeting Law applies to every meeting of a quorum of a governmental body if any public business over which the governmental body has jurisdiction is discussed or considered. Violation of the Open Meeting Law can result in the invalidation of the action taken. Read the Open Meeting Law. You can also read the Attorney General's Open Meeting Law Guide.
The following summary is designed to help a local cultural council comply with the Open Meeting Law.
A notice of any meeting of a local cultural council must be filed with the city or town clerk at least 48 hours prior to the meeting, not counting Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays. Example: Monday night meeting must be posted before Thursday night. Notices must (1) include list of topics chair reasonably anticipates will be discussed, i.e., agenda, and (2) be posted in or on municipal building to be visible to public at all hours.
The LCC must maintain accurate records of its meetings. Minutes must contain the date, place, time and matters discussed and shall include summaries of matters discussed, list of documents used, and all decisions made/votes taken. Overall, the minutes are meant to serve as a record of what was done at a meeting and why decisions were made, not necessarily all that was said. For example, minutes from a grant cycle voting meeting should include the criteria ultimately cited in an application's denial, but do not need to include a full transcript of the council discussion leading up to that decision.
Documents and other exhibits, such as photographs, recordings or maps, used by the body at an open or executive session shall, along with the minutes, be part of the official record of the meeting. Minutes, notes, recordings or other materials used in the preparation of minutes and all documents and exhibits used at the meeting shall become public records except as otherwise provided by law.
Meetings may be recorded on audio or video tape. The person desiring to record a meeting must notify the chair, however, and that the chair must inform everyone in the room of the recording. An LCC may not rely solely on the tapes to satisfy the record-keeping requirements of the Law. Rather, the cassette or video tapes should serve as an aid to the body in preparing its "hard copy" minutes.
No person may address a public meeting of an LCC without permission of the presiding council member, and all persons shall, at the request of the presiding officer, be silent.
Meetings must open to the public and held in a physically accessible location. All open meetings of governmental bodies must be accessible to persons with disabilities. Meeting locations must be accessible by a wheelchair, without the need for special assistance. If the town or city hall does not have such space, another location which meets accessibility requirements must be found.
Open Meeting Law does not apply to any chance meeting, or a social meeting at which matters relating to official business are discussed so long as no final agreement is reached. The Law specifically states that chance or social meetings are not to be used to circumvent the letter or spirit of the Law by treating them as occasions to discuss or act on a matter within the governmental body's jurisdiction, control or advisory power.
"Telephone meetings" - discussion by telephone among members of an LCC on an issue of public business - are a violation of the Law. This is true even where individual telephone conversations occur in serial fashion. Telephone and email voting or proxy voting is not allowed. Voting may not be done by secret ballot.
A quorum of members is required at meetings in order for any vote to take place. For LCCs, a quorum is a simple majority of the members of the council. For example, if a council has seven members, a quorum is four.
Regarding the use of e-mail:
Emails are expressly included in definition of "deliberation," which is prohibited outside of meetings; but distribution of agendas, scheduling information or reports to be discussed at next meeting is permitted. While the law specifically refers to "email" as constituting deliberation, be advised, however, that similar types of electronic communication, such as blogging, electronic chatrooms, and social networking sites will also likely fall within the scope of the definition of "deliberation" if a quorum of the public body is involved.
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It is important to encourage the full participation of all council members. A helpful way to ensure attendance is to plan and approve an annual calendar of meetings once per year. A council member can be assigned to mail out reminders or make phone calls before each meeting and poll new members before they are appointed to make sure they can attend. The council should consider rescheduling meetings if attendance becomes a problem for new members.
If necessary, establish an attendance policy for council members and follow up with members who fall below the required number of meetings to determine the cause. Councils looking to establish a policy for removing inactive members should first get approval from the municipality.
A well-run meeting gives everyone a sense of accomplishment and keeps members active and involved. It also shows respect for busy people's schedules and commitment. Consider these suggestions:
- Councils are required to keep minutes for each meeting. Consider appointing a second note taker to help the Secretary in this task.
- Set an agenda for each meeting, with predetermined topics and discussion time. The agenda may include policy issues, discussion topics, proposals, grant reviews, applicant interviews, required actions (voting), old and new business. A sample agenda is available.
- Distribute minutes, agendas and applications well enough in advance of meetings so that members can attend prepared to take action.
- Make council records available as a tool to orient new members.
- Consider using Roberts Rules of Order to run meetings.
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