The Open Meetings Act
By Ellen Richardson,
Library Law Specialist
In recent months several public bodies, including library boards, have become painfully and publicly aware of the intricacies of the Michigan Open Meetings Act, Act 267 of the Public Acts of 1976. Although the text of the act may be found in the Library Laws Handbook, a few comments about the purpose of the act and its basic requirements may be of assistance.
The 1970s brought policy makers at the federal level and in many of the states to a renewed commitment to making government institutions "by and for the people." Several initiatives, including greater access to decision-making bodies and freedom of access to information, were embodied in public laws. Michigan's efforts resulted in passage of the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act. Both public acts ensure that government will not be conducted in the proverbial "smoke-filled back rooms." The deliberation of public policy in the public forum provides an important check and balance in our system of government.
The concept of the Open Meetings Act is simple: as a public body, a library board must do all its business, except for certain narrowly defined exceptions, in public meetings at which a quorum is present. Meetings must be held in public places. The public must be told in advance the time and location of the meeting and be given an opportunity to address the public body. Minutes must be taken at the meeting and be made available to the public upon request within a short time after the meeting.
Most library boards are well versed in meeting these basic requirements. Trustees know what constitutes a quorum, how to allow for public comment, and how and when to post notice of regular and special meetings. Questions usually arise about some of the finer points of the act. What about closed sessions? What about committee meetings?
Closed sessions are allowed only for the limited purposes stated in Section 8 of the act. Library trustees who have served on boards in the private sector are often surprised at how limiting the exceptions are, especially in regard to personnel issues. Unless the person subject to an evaluation, a disciplinary action, or complaints, asks for a closed session, such matters must be handled in a public meeting. It often takes a great deal of discipline and tact to address these issues in a respectful yet effective way under the glare of public scrutiny. The act also outlines the procedures that must be followed before the board may go into closed session. This is not an easy area of the law. Trustees should make it a practice to consult legal counsel before a closed session is held.
Do committee meetings need to follow the requirements of the Open Meetings Act? It has long been established that library board committees and subcommittees which include a quorum of library board members must comply with the act. What if there is less than a quorum of board members on the committee? Board committees, such as a budget committee, are usually charged with a specific duty and delegated the authority to carry out that duty. Deliberations and decisions are made in the committee meetings which will lead toward the final decision-making by the full board. Recent Michigan Supreme Court decisions indicate that it is probably wise to make sure that all such committee meetings are open to the public.
This is, of course, only a summary of the Open Meetings Act. A comprehensive discussion may be found in Chapter 3 of the Trustee Manual published by the Library of Michigan. Both the Trustee Manual and the Library Laws Handbook are available free of charge from the Library of Michigan.