The AGO is pleased to offer this Guide to the Open Meeting Law for use in understanding the application of the law and the regulations to your situation. Keep in mind, however, that the Guide is not the Law or the Regulations. In the event of any conflict, the language in the Law and Regulations is controlling.

This Guide is written for the ease of every-day users for whom the provisions of the Open Meeting Law are important. We welcome comment on how this Guide may be improved from time to time. Please make sure you are referring to the latest which will be posted on this website.

Click to download a copy of the Attorney General's Open Meeting Law Guide pdf format of OML Guide

Overview

Purpose of the Law
AGO Authority
Certification
Open Meeting Website
What meetings are covered by the Open Meeting Law?
What constitutes a public body?
What constitutes a deliberation?
What matters are within the jurisdiction of the public body?
What are the exceptions to the definition of a meeting?

What are the requirements for posting notice of meetings?

What are the requirements for filing and posting meeting notices of local public bodies?
What are the requirements for posting meeting notices for regional district, county and state public bodies?
A note about accessibility

What information must meeting notices contain?

When can a public body meet in executive session?

The Ten Purposes for Executive Session

May a member of the public body participate remotely?

How can the practice of remote participation be adopted?
What are the permissible reasons for remote participation?
What are the acceptable means of remote participation?
What are the minimum requirements for remote participation?
What procedures must be followed if remote participation is used at a meeting?

What public participation in meetings must be allowed?

What records of public meetings must be kept?

Open Session Meeting Records
Executive Session Meeting Records

What is the Attorney General's role in enforcing the Open Meeting Law?

What is the Open Meeting Law complaint procedure?

When is a violation of the law considered "intentional"?

Will the Attorney General's Office provide training on the Open Meeting Law?

Contacting the Attorney General

 

Overview

Purpose of the Law

The purpose of the Open Meeting Law is to ensure transparency in the deliberations on which public policy is based.  Because the democratic process depends on the public having knowledge about the considerations underlying governmental action, the Open Meeting Law requires, with some exceptions, that meetings of public bodies be open to the public.  It also seeks to balance the public’s interest in witnessing the deliberations of public officials with the government’s need to manage its operations efficiently. 

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AGO Authority

The Open Meeting Law was revised as part of the 2009 Ethics Reform Bill, and now centralizes responsibility for statewide enforcement of the law in the Attorney General’s Office.  G.L. c. 30A, § 19(a). To help public bodies understand and comply with the law, the Attorney General has created the Division of Open Government.  The Division of Open Government provides training, responds to inquiries, investigates complaints, and when necessary, makes findings and orders remedial action to address violations of the law.  The purpose of this Guide is to inform elected and appointed members of public bodies, as well as the interested public, of the basic requirements of the law.

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Certification

Within two weeks of a member’s election or appointment or the taking of the oath of office, whichever occurs later, all members of public bodies must complete the attached Certificate of Receipt of Open Meeting Law Materials certifying that they have received these materials, and that they understand the requirements of the Open Meeting Law and the consequences of violating it.  The certification must be retained where the public body maintains its official records.  All public body members should familiarize themselves with the Open Meeting Law, the Attorney General’s regulations, and this Guide. 

In the event a Certificate has not yet been completed by a presently serving member of a public body, the member should complete and submit the Certificate at the earliest opportunity to be considered in compliance with the law.

Click to download and print a copy of the Certification Document pdf format of Certificate of Receipt of OML Materials
.

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Open Meeting Website

This Guide is intended to be a clear and concise explanation of the Open Meeting Law’s requirements.  The complete law, as well as the Attorney General’s regulations, training materials, and determinations and declinations as to complaints can be found on the Attorney General’s Open Meeting website, http://www.mass.gov/ago/openmeeting. Members of public bodies, other local and state government officials, and the public are encouraged to visit the website regularly for updates on the law and the Attorney General’s interpretations of it.

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What meetings are covered by the Open Meeting Law?

With certain exceptions, all meetings of a public body must be open to the public.  A meeting is generally defined as “a deliberation by a public body with respect to any matter within the body’s jurisdiction.”  As explained more fully below, a deliberation is a communication between or among members of a public body. 

These four questions will help determine whether a communication constitutes a meeting subject to the law:  

1) is the communication between or among members of a public body;
2) if so, does the communication constitute a deliberation;
3) does the communication involve a matter within the body’s jurisdiction; and
4) if so, does the communication fall within an exception listed in the law?

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What constitutes a public body?

While there is no comprehensive list of public bodies, any multi-member board, commission, committee or subcommittee within the executive or legislative branches 1 of state government, or within any county, district, city, region or town, if established to serve a public purpose, is subject to the law.  The law includes any multi-member body created to advise or make recommendations to a public body, and also includes the governing board of any local housing or redevelopment authority, and the governing board or body of any authority established by the Legislature to serve a public purpose.  The law excludes the Legislature and its committees, bodies of the judicial branch, and bodies appointed by a constitutional officer solely for the purpose of advising a constitutional officer. 

Boards of selectmen and school committees (including those of charter schools) are certainly subject to the Open Meeting Law, as are subcommittees of public bodies, regardless of whether their role is decision-making or advisory.  Individual government officials, such as a town manager or police chief, and members of their staff are not subject to the law, and so they may meet with one another to discuss public business without needing to comply with Open Meeting Law requirements.  This exception for individual officials to the general Open Meeting Law does not apply where such officials are serving as members of a multiple-member public body that is subject to the law.

Bodies appointed by a public official solely for the purpose of advising the official on a decision that individual could make alone are not public bodies subject to the Open Meeting Law.  For example, a school superintendent appoints a five-member advisory body to assist her in nominating candidates for school principal, a task the superintendent could perform herself.  That advisory body would not be subject to the Open Meeting Law.2

1 Although the Legislature itself is not a public body subject to the Open Meeting Law, certain legislative commissions are required to follow the Law's requirements.

2 See Connelly v. School Committee of Hanover, 409 Mass. 232, 565 N.E.2d 449 (1991).

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What constitutes a deliberation?

The Open Meeting Law defines deliberation as “an oral or written communication through any medium, including electronic mail, between or among a quorum of a public body on any public business within its jurisdiction.”  Distribution of a meeting agenda, scheduling or procedural information, or reports or documents that may be discussed at a meeting is often helpful to public body members when preparing for upcoming meetings.  These types of communications generally will not constitute deliberation, provided that, when these materials are distributed, no member of the public body expresses an opinion on matters within the body’s jurisdiction.  Additionally, certain communications that may otherwise be considered deliberation are specifically exempt by statute from the definition of deliberation (for example, discussion of the recess and continuance of a Town Meeting pursuant to G.L. c. 39, § 10A(a) is not deliberation).

To be a deliberation, the communication must involve a quorum of the public body.  A quorum is usually a simple majority of the members of a public body.  Thus, a communication among less than a quorum of the members of a public body will not be a deliberation, unless there are multiple communications among the members of the public body that together constitute communication among a quorum of members.  Courts have held that the Open Meeting Law applies when members of a public body communicate in a serial manner in order to evade the application of the law. 

Note that the expression of an opinion on matters within the body’s jurisdiction to a quorum of a public body is a deliberation, even if no other public body member responds.  For example, if a member of a public body sends an email to a quorum of a public body expressing her opinion on a matter that could come before that body, this communication violates the law even if none of the recipients responds.

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What matters are within the jurisdiction of the public body?

The Open Meeting Law applies only to the discussion of any “matter within the body’s jurisdiction.”  The law does not specifically define “jurisdiction.”  As a general rule, any matter of public business on which a quorum of the public body may make a decision or recommendation is considered a matter within the jurisdiction of the public body.  Certain discussions regarding procedural or administrative matters may also relate to public business within a body's jurisdiction, such as where the discussion involves the organization and leadership of the public body, committee assignments, or rules or bylaws for the body.  Statements made for political purposes, such as where a public body’s members characterize their own past achievements, generally are not considered communications on public business within the jurisdiction of the public body.

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What are the exceptions to the definition of a meeting?

There are five exceptions to the definition of a meeting under the Open Meeting Law.

  1. Members of a public body may conduct an on-site inspection of a project or program; however, they may not deliberate at such gatherings;
  2. Members of a public body may attend a conference, training program or event; however, they may not deliberate at such gatherings;
  3. Members of a public body may attend a meeting of another public body provided that they communicate only by open participation; however, they may not deliberate at such gatherings;
  4. Meetings of quasi-judicial boards or commissions held solely to make decisions in an adjudicatory proceeding are not subject to the Open Meeting Law; and
  5. Town Meetings, which are subject to other legal requirements, are not governed by the Open Meeting Law.  See, e.g. G.L. c. 39, §§ 9, 10 (establishing procedures for Town Meeting).

The Attorney General interprets the exemption for “quasi-judicial boards or commissions” to apply only to certain state “quasi-judicial” bodies and a very limited number of public bodies at other levels of government whose proceedings are specifically defined as “agencies” for purposes of G.L. c. 30A.

We have received several inquiries about the exception for Town Meeting and whether it applies to meetings outside of a Town Meeting session by Town Meeting members or Town Meeting committees or to deliberation by members of a public body – such as a board of selectmen – during a session of Town Meeting.  The Attorney General interprets this exemption to mean that the Open Meeting Law does not reach any aspect of Town Meeting.  Therefore, the Attorney General will not investigate complaints alleging violations in these situations.  Note, however, that this is a matter of interpretation and future Attorneys General may choose to apply the law in such situations.

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What are the requirements for posting notice of meetings?

Except in cases of emergency, a public body must provide the public with notice of its meeting 48 hours in advance, excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays.  Notice of emergency meetings must be posted as soon as reasonably possible prior to the meeting.  Also note that other laws, such as those governing procedures for public hearings, may require additional notice. 

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What are the requirements for filing and posting meeting notices for local public bodies?

For local public bodies, meeting notices must be filed with the municipal clerk with enough time to permit posting of the notice at least 48 hours in advance of the public meeting.  Notices may be posted on a bulletin board, in a loose-leaf binder, or on an electronic display (e.g. television, computer monitor, or an electronic bulletin board), provided that the notice is conspicuously visible to the public at all hours in or on the municipal building in which the clerk’s office is located.  In the event that the meeting notices posted in the municipal building are not visible to the public at all hours, then the municipality must either post notices on the outside of the building or follow one of these alternative posting methods approved by the Attorney General in 940 CMR 29.03(2)(b):

  • public bodies may post notice of meetings on the municipal website;
  • public bodies may post notice of meetings on cable television, AND, post notice or provide cable television access in an alternate municipal building (e.g., police or fire station) where the notice is accessible at all hours;
  • public bodies may post notice of meetings in a newspaper of general circulation in the municipality, AND, post notice or a copy of the newspaper containing the meeting notice at an alternate municipal building (e.g., police or fire station) where the notice is accessible at all hours;
  • public bodies may place a computer monitor or electronic or physical bulletin board displaying meeting notices on or in a door, window, or near the entrance of the municipal building in which the clerk’s office is located in such a manner as to be visible to the public from outside the building; or
  • public bodies may provide an audio recording of meeting notices, available to the public by telephone at all hours.

Prior to utilizing an alternative posting method, the clerk of the municipality must inform the Division of Open Government of its notice posting method and must inform the Division of any future changes to that posting method.  Public bodies must consistently use the most current notice posting method on file with the Division.  A description of the alternative posting method must also be posted on or adjacent to the main and handicapped accessible entrances to the building where the clerk’s office is located.  Note that, even if an alternative posting method has been adopted, meeting notices must still be available in or around the clerk’s office so that members of the public may view the notices during normal business hours. 

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What are the requirements for posting meeting notices for regional district, county, and state public bodies?

  • For regional or district public bodies and regional school districts, meeting notices must be filed and posted in the same manner required of local public bodies in each of the communities within the region or district.  As an alternative method of notice, a regional or district public body may post a meeting notice on the regional or district public body’s website.  A copy of the notice must be filed and kept by the chair of the public body or the chair’s designee.
  • County public bodies must file meeting notices in the office of the county commissioners and post notice of the meeting in a manner conspicuously visible to the public at all hours at a place or places designated by the county commissioners for notice postings.  As an alternative method of notice, a county public body may post notice of meetings on the county public body’s website.  A copy of the notice shall be filed and kept by the chair of the county public body or the chair’s designee. 
  • State public bodies must file meeting notices by posting the notice on the website of the public body or its parent agency.  The chair of a state public body must notify the Attorney General in writing of the website address where notices will be posted, and of any subsequent changes to that posting location.  A copy of each meeting notice must also be sent to the Secretary of State’s Regulations Division and should be forwarded to the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, which maintains a listing of state public body meetings. 

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A Note About Accessibility

Public bodies are subject to all applicable state and federal laws that govern accessibility for persons with disabilities.  These laws include the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and state constitutional provisions.  For instance, public bodies that adopt website posting as an alternative method of notice must ensure that the website utilizes technology that is readily accessible to people with disabilities, including individuals who use screen readers.  All open meetings of public bodies must be accessible to persons with disabilities.  Meeting locations must be accessible by wheelchair, without the need for special assistance.  Also sign language interpreters for deaf or hearing-impaired persons must be provided, subject to reasonable advance notice.3 The Attorney General’s Disability Rights Project is available to answer questions about accessibility and may be reached at (617) 963-2939.

3 The Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing will assist with arrangements for a sign language interpreter.  The Commission may be reached at 617-740-1600 VOICE and 617-740-1700 TTY.

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What information must meeting notices contain?

Meeting notices must be posted in a legible, easily understandable format; contain the date, time, and place of the meeting; and list all topics that the chair reasonably anticipates, 48 hours in advance, will be discussed at the meeting.  The list of topics must be sufficiently specific to reasonably inform the public of the issues to be discussed at the meeting.  Where there are no anticipated topics for discussion in open session other than the procedural requirements for convening an executive session, the public body should list “open session” as a topic, in addition to the executive session, so the public is aware that it has the opportunity to attend and learn the basis for the executive session. 

Meeting notices must also indicate the date and time that the notice was posted, either on the notice itself or in a document or website accompanying the notice.  If a notice is revised, the revised notice must also conspicuously record both the date and time the original notice was posted as well as the date and time the last revision was posted.  Recording the date and time enables the public to observe that public bodies are complying with the Open Meeting Law’s notice requirements without requiring constant vigilance.  Additionally, in the event of a complaint, it provides the Attorney General with evidence of compliance with those requirements. 

If a discussion topic is proposed after a meeting notice is posted, and it was not reasonably anticipated by the chair more than 48 hours before the meeting, the public body should update its posting to provide the public with as much notice as possible of what subjects will be discussed during the meeting. Although a public body may consider a topic that was not listed in the meeting notice if it was not anticipated, the Attorney General strongly encourages public bodies to postpone discussion and action on topics that are controversial or may be of particular interest to the public if the topic was not listed in the meeting notice.

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When can a public body meet in executive session?

While all meetings of public bodies must be open to the public, certain topics may be discussed in executive, or closed, session.  Before going into an executive session, the chair of the public body must first:

  • Convene in open session;
  • State the reason for the executive session, stating all subjects that may be revealed without compromising the purpose for which the executive session was called; 
  • State whether the public body will reconvene in open session at the end of the executive session; and 
  • Take a roll call vote of the body to enter executive session.

Where a public body member is participating in an executive session remotely, the member must state at the start of the executive session that no other person is present or able to hear the discussion at the remote location.  The public body may authorize, by a simple majority vote, the presence and participation of other individuals at the remote participant’s location.

While in executive session, the public body must keep accurate records, all votes taken must be recorded by roll call, and the public body may only discuss matters for which the executive session was called.

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The Ten Purposes for Executive Session

The law states ten specific purposes for which an executive session may be held, and emphasizes that these are the only reasons for which a public body may enter executive session.

The ten purposes for which a public body may vote to hold an executive session are:

1. To discuss the reputation, character, physical condition or mental health, rather than professional competence, of an individual, or to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual.  The individual to be discussed in such executive session shall be notified in writing by the public body at least 48 hours prior to the proposed executive session; provided, however, that notification may be waived upon written agreement of the parties. 

This purpose is designed to protect the rights and reputation of individuals. Nevertheless, where a public body is discussing an employee evaluation, considering applicants for a position, or discussing the qualifications of any individual, these discussions should be held in open session to the extent that the discussion deals with issues other than the reputation, character, health, or any complaints or charges against the individual.  An executive session called for this purpose triggers certain rights for the individual who is the subject of the discussion.  The individual has the right to be present, though he or she may choose not to attend.  The individual who is the subject of the discussion may also choose to have the discussion in an open meeting, and that choice takes precedence over the right of the public body to go into executive session.

While the imposition of disciplinary sanctions by a public body on an individual fits within this purpose, this purpose does not apply if, for example, the public body is deciding whether to lay off a large number of employees because of budgetary constraints.

2. To conduct strategy sessions in preparation for negotiations with nonunion personnel or to conduct collective bargaining sessions or contract negotiations with nonunion personnel;

Generally, a public body must identify the specific non-union personnel or collective bargaining unit with which it is negotiating before entering into executive session under Purpose 2.  A public body may withhold the identity of the non-union personnel or bargaining unit if publicly disclosing that information would compromise the purpose for which the executive session was called.  While we generally defer to public bodies’ assessment of whether the inclusion of such details would compromise the purpose for an executive session, a public body must be able to demonstrate a reasonable basis for that claim if challenged.

While a public body may agree on terms with individual non-union personnel in executive session, the final vote to execute such agreements must be taken by the public body in open session.  In contrast, a public body may approve final terms and execute a collective bargaining agreement in executive session, but should promptly disclose the agreement in open session following its execution. 

Collective Bargaining Sessions:  These include not only the bargaining sessions, but also include grievance hearings that are required by a collective bargaining agreement.

3. To discuss strategy with respect to collective bargaining or litigation if an open meeting may have a detrimental effect on the bargaining or litigating position of the public body and the chair so declares;

Generally, a public body must identify the collective bargaining unit with which it is negotiating or the litigation matter it is discussing before entering into executive session under Purpose 3.  A public body may withhold the identity of the collective bargaining unit or name of the litigation matter if publicly disclosing that information would compromise the purpose for which the executive session was called.  While we generally defer to public bodies’ assessment of whether the inclusion of such details would compromise the purpose for an executive session, a public body must be able to demonstrate a reasonable basis for that claim if challenged.

Collective Bargaining Strategy:  Discussions with respect to collective bargaining strategy include discussion of proposals for wage and benefit packages or working conditions for union employees.  The public body, if challenged, has the burden of proving that an open meeting might have a detrimental effect on its bargaining position.  The showing that must be made is that an open discussion may have a detrimental effect on the collective bargaining process; the body is not required to demonstrate a definite harm that would have arisen.  At the time the executive session is proposed and voted on, the chair must state on the record that having the discussion in an open session may be detrimental to the public body’s bargaining or litigating position.

Litigation Strategy:  Discussions concerning strategy with respect to ongoing litigation obviously fit within this purpose but only if an open meeting may have a detrimental effect on the litigating position of the public body. Discussions relating to potential litigation are not covered by this exemption unless that litigation is clearly and imminently threatened or otherwise demonstrably likely.  That a person is represented by counsel and supports a position adverse to the public body’s does not by itself mean that litigation is imminently threatened or likely.  Nor does the fact that a newspaper reports a party has threatened to sue necessarily mean imminent litigation. 

Note:  For the reasons discussed above, a public body’s discussions with its counsel do not automatically fall under this or any other purpose for holding an executive session.

4. To discuss the deployment of security personnel or devices, or strategies with respect thereto;

5. To investigate charges of criminal misconduct or to consider the filing of criminal complaints.

This purpose permits an executive session to investigate charges of criminal misconduct and to consider the filing of criminal complaints.  Thus, it primarily involves discussions that would precede the formal criminal process in court.  Purpose 1 is related, in that it permits an executive session to discuss certain complaints or charges, which may include criminal complaints or charges, but only those that have already been brought.  However Purpose 1 confers certain rights of participation on the individual involved, as well as the right for the individual to insist that the discussion occur in open session.  Purpose 5 does not require that the same rights be given to the person who is the subject of a criminal complaint. To the limited extent that there is overlap between Purposes 1 and 5, a public body has discretion to choose which purpose to invoke when going into executive session.

6. To consider the purchase, exchange, lease or value of real property if the chair declares that an open meeting may have a detrimental effect on the negotiating position of the public body;

Generally, a public body must identify the specific piece of property it plans to discuss before entering into executive session under Purpose 6.  A public body may withhold the identity of the property if publicly disclosing that information would compromise the purpose for which the executive session was called.  While we generally defer to public bodies’ assessment of whether the inclusion of such details would compromise the purpose for an executive session, a public body must be able to demonstrate a reasonable basis for that claim if challenged.

Under this purpose, as with the collective bargaining and litigation purpose, an executive session may be held only where an open meeting may have a detrimental impact on the body’s negotiating position with a third party.  At the time that the executive session is proposed and voted on, the chair must state on the record that having the discussion in an open session may be detrimental to the public body’s negotiating position.

7. To comply with, or act under the authority of, any general or special law or federal grant-in-aid requirements;

There may be provisions in state statutes or federal grants that require or specifically allow a public body to consider a particular issue in a closed session.  Before entering executive session under this purpose, the public body must cite the specific law or federal grant-in-aid requirement that necessitates confidentiality.  A public body may withhold that information only if publicly disclosing it would compromise the purpose for which the executive session was called.  While we generally defer to public bodies’ assessment of whether the inclusion of such details would compromise the purpose for an executive session, a public body must be able to demonstrate a reasonable basis for that claim if challenged.

8. To consider or interview applicants for employment or appointment by a preliminary screening committee if the chair declares that an open meeting will have a detrimental effect in obtaining qualified applicants; provided, however, that this clause shall not apply to any meeting, including meetings of a preliminary screening committee, to consider and interview applicants who have passed a prior preliminary screening;

This purpose permits a hiring subcommittee of a public body or a preliminary screening committee to conduct the initial screening process in executive session.  This purpose does not apply to any stage in the hiring process after the screening committee or subcommittee votes to recommend candidates to its parent body.  It may, however, include a review of resumés and multiple rounds of interviews by the screening committee aimed at narrowing the group of applicants down to finalists.  At the time that the executive session is proposed and voted on, the chair must state on the record that having the discussion in an open session will be detrimental to the public body’s ability to attract qualified applicants for the position.  If the public body opts to convene a preliminary screening committee, the committee must contain less than a quorum of the members of the parent public body.  The committee may also contain members who are not members of the parent public body.

Note that a public body is not required to create a preliminary screening committee to consider or interview applicants.  However, if the body chooses to conduct the review of applicants itself, it may not do so in executive session.

9. To meet or confer with a mediator, as defined in section 23C of chapter 233, with respect to any litigation or decision on any public business within its jurisdiction involving another party, group or entity, provided that:

(i) any decision to participate in mediation shall be made in an open session and the parties, issues involved and purpose of the mediation shall be disclosed; and

(ii) no action shall be taken by any public body with respect to those issues which are the subject of the mediation without deliberation and approval for such action at an open session.

10. To discuss trade secrets or confidential, competitively-sensitive or other proprietary information provided:

a. in the course of activities conducted by a governmental body as an energy supplier under a license granted by the department of public utilities pursuant to G.L. c. 164 § 1F;

b. in the course of activities conducted as a municipal aggregator under G.L. c. 164 § 134; or

c. in the course of activities conducted by a cooperative consisting of governmental entities organized pursuant to G.L. c. 164 § 136

d. when such governmental body, municipal aggregator or cooperative determines that such disclosure will adversely affect its ability to conduct business in relation to other entities making, selling or distributing electric power and energy.

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May a member of the public body participate remotely?

The Attorney General’s Regulations, 940 CMR 29.10, permit remote participation in certain circumstances.  However, the Attorney General strongly encourages members of public bodies to physically attend meetings whenever possible.  Members of public bodies have a responsibility to ensure that remote participation in meetings is not used in a way that would defeat the purposes of the Open Meeting Law, namely promoting transparency with regard to deliberations and decisions on which public policy is based. 

Note that the Attorney General’s regulations enable members of public bodies to participate remotely if the practice has been properly adopted, but do not require that a public body permit members of the public to participate remotely.  If a public body chooses to allow individuals who are not members of the public body to participate remotely in a meeting, it may do so without following the Open Meeting Law’s remote participation procedures.

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How can the practice of remote participation be adopted?

Remote participation may be used during a meeting of a public body if it has first been adopted by the chief executive officer of the municipality for local public bodies, the county commissioners for county public bodies, or by a majority vote of the public body for retirement boards, district, regional and state public bodies.  The chief executive officer may be the board of selectmen, the city council, or the mayor, depending on the municipality.  See G.L. c. 4, § 7.

If the chief executive officer in a municipality authorizes remote participation, that authorization applies to all public bodies in the municipality.  940 CMR 29.10(2)(a).  However, the chief executive officer determines the amount and source of payment for any costs associated with remote participation and may decide to fund the practice only for certain public bodies.  See 940 CMR 29.10(6)(e).  In addition, the chief executive officer can authorize public bodies in that municipality to "opt out" of the practice altogether.  See 940 CMR 29.10(8). 

Note about Local Commissions on Disability: Beginning on April 7, 2015, local commissions on disability may decide by majority vote of the commissioners at a regular meeting to permit remote participation during a specific meeting or during all commission meetings.  G.L. c. 30A, § 20(e).  Adoption by the municipal adopting authority is not required.

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What are the permissible reasons for remote participation?

Once remote participation is adopted, any member of a public body may participate remotely if the chair (or, in the chair’s absence, the person chairing the meeting) determines that one of the following factors makes the member’s physical attendance unreasonably difficult:

  • Personal illness;
  • Personal disability;
  • Emergency;
  • Military service; or
  • Geographic distance.

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What are the acceptable means of remote participation?

Acceptable means of remote participation include telephone, internet, or satellite enabled audio or video conferencing, or any other technology that enables the remote participant and all persons present at the meeting location to be clearly audible to one another.  Text messaging, instant messaging, email and web chat without audio are not acceptable methods of remote participation.  Note that accommodations must be made for any public body member who requires TTY service, video relay service, or other form of adaptive telecommunications. 

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What are the minimum requirements for remote participation?

Any public body using remote participation during a meeting must ensure that the following minimum requirements are met:

  1. A quorum of the body, including the chair or, in the chair’s absence, the person chairing the meeting, must be physically present at the meeting location;
  2. Members of a public body who participate remotely and all persons present at the meeting location must be clearly audible to each other; and
  3. All votes taken during a meeting in which a member participates remotely must be by roll call vote.

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What procedures must be followed if remote participation is used at a meeting?

At the start of any meeting during which a member of a public body will participate remotely, the chair must announce the name of any member who is participating remotely and which of the five reasons listed above requires that member’s remote participation.  The chair’s statement does not need to contain any detail about the reason for the member’s remote participation other than the section of the regulation that justifies it.  This information must also be recorded in the meeting minutes. 

Members of public bodies who participate remotely may vote and shall not be deemed absent for purposes of G.L. c. 39, § 23D.  In addition, members who participate remotely may participate in executive sessions but must state at the start of any such session that no other person is present or able to hear the discussion at the remote location, unless the public body has approved the presence of that individual.

If technical difficulties arise as a result of utilizing remote participation, the chair (or, in the chair’s absence, person chairing the meeting) may decide how to address the situation.  Public bodies are encouraged, whenever possible, to suspend discussion while reasonable efforts are made to correct any problem that interferes with a remote participant’s ability to hear or be heard clearly by all persons present at the meeting location.  If a remote participant is disconnected from the meeting, the minutes must note that fact and the time at which the disconnection occurred.

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What public participation in meetings must be allowed?

Under the Open Meeting Law, the public is permitted to attend meetings of public bodies but is excluded from an executive session that is called for a valid purpose listed in the law.  While the public is permitted to attend an open meeting, an individual may not address the public body without permission of the chair.  An individual may not disrupt a meeting of a public body, and at the request of the chair, all members of the public shall be silent.  If, after clear warning, a person continues to be disruptive, the chair may order the person to leave the meeting.  If the person does not leave, the chair may authorize a constable or other officer to remove the person.  Although public participation is entirely within the chair’s discretion, the Attorney General encourages public bodies to allow as much public participation as time permits.

Any member of the public may make an audio or video recording of an open session of a public meeting.  A member of the public who wishes to record a meeting must first notify the chair and must comply with reasonable requirements regarding audio or video equipment established by the chair so as not to interfere with the meeting.  The chair is required to inform other attendees of any such recording at the beginning of the meeting.  If someone arrives after the meeting has begun and wishes to record a meeting, that person should attempt to notify the chair prior to beginning recording, ideally in a manner that does not significantly disrupt the meeting in progress (such as passing a note for the chair to the board administrator or secretary). The chair should endeavor to acknowledge such attempts at notification and announce the fact of any recording to those in attendance.

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What records of public meetings must be kept?

Public bodies are required to create and maintain accurate minutes of all meetings, including executive sessions.  The minutes, which must be created and approved in a timely manner, must include:

  • the date, time and place of the meeting;
  • the members present or absent;
  • the decisions made and actions taken, including a record of all votes;
  • a summary of the discussions on each subject;
  • a list of all documents and exhibits used at the meeting; and
  • the name of any member who participated in the meeting remotely, along with the reason under 940 CMR 29.10(5) for his or her remote participation. 

While the minutes must include a summary of the discussions on each subject, a transcript is not required.  No vote taken by a public body, either in an open or in an executive session, shall be by secret ballot.  All votes taken in executive session must be by roll call and the results recorded in the minutes.  While public bodies must identify in the minutes all documents and exhibits used at a meeting and must retain them in accordance with the Secretary of State’s records retention schedule, these documents and exhibits needn’t be attached to or physically stored with the minutes. 

Minutes, and all documents and exhibits used, are public records and a part of the official record of the meeting.  Records may be subject to disclosure under either the Open Meeting Law or Public Records Law.  The State and Municipal Record Retention Schedules are available through the Secretary of State’s website at: http://www.sec.state.ma.us/arc/arcrmu/rmuidx.htm.

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Open Session Meeting Records

The Open Meeting Law requires public bodies to create and approve minutes in a timely manner.  The Open Meeting Law does not provide a definition of “timely manner,” but the Attorney General recommends that minutes be approved at a public body’s next meeting whenever possible.  The law requires that existing minutes be made available to the public within 10 days of a request, whether they have been approved or remain in draft form.  Materials or other exhibits used by the public body in an open meeting must also be made available to the public within 10 days of a request. 

There are two exemptions to the open session records disclosure requirement:  1) materials (other than those that were created by members of the public body for the purpose of the evaluation) used in a performance evaluation of an individual bearing on his professional competence, and 2) materials (other than any resumé submitted by an applicant, which is subject to disclosure) used in deliberations about employment or appointment of individuals, including applications and supporting materials.  Documents created by members of the public body for the purpose of performing an evaluation are subject to disclosure.  This applies to both individual evaluations and evaluation compilations, provided the documents were created by members of the public body for the purpose of the evaluation.

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Executive Session Meeting Records

Public bodies are not required to disclose the minutes, notes, or other materials used in an executive session if the disclosure of these records may defeat the lawful purposes of the executive session.  Once disclosure would no longer defeat the purposes of the executive session, however, minutes and other records from that executive session must be disclosed unless they fall within an exemption to the Public Records Law,  G.L. c. 4, § 7, cl. 26, or the attorney-client privilege applies.  Public bodies are also required to periodically review their executive session minutes to determine whether continued non-disclosure is warranted.  These determinations must be included in the minutes of the body’s next meeting. 

A public body must respond to a request to inspect or copy executive session minutes within 10 days of the request.  If the public body has determined, prior to the request, that the requested executive session minutes may be released, it must make those minutes available to the requestor at that time.  If the body previously determined that executive session minutes should remain confidential because publication would defeat the lawful purposes of the executive session, it should respond by stating the reason the minutes continue to be withheld.  And if, at the time of a request, the public body has not conducted a review of the minutes to determine whether continued nondisclosure is warranted, the body must perform such a review and release the minutes, if appropriate, no later than its next meeting or within 30 days, whichever occurs first.  In such circumstances, the body should still respond to the request within 10 days, notifying the requestor that it is conducting this review.

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What is the Attorney General's role in enforcing the Open Meeting Law?

The Attorney General’s Division of Open Government is responsible for enforcing the Open Meeting Law.  The Attorney General has the authority to receive and investigate complaints, bring enforcement actions, issue advisory opinions, and promulgate regulations. 

The Division of Open Government regularly seeks feedback from the public on ways in which it can better support public bodies to help them comply with the law’s requirements.  The Division of Open Government offers periodic online and in-person training on the Open Meeting Law and will respond to requests for guidance and information from public bodies and the public. 

The Division of Open Government will take complaints from members of the public and will work with public bodies to resolve problems.  While any member of the public may file a complaint with a public body alleging a violation of the Open Meeting Law, a public body need not, and the Division of Open Government will not, investigate anonymous complaints. 

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What is the Open Meeting Law complaint procedure?

Step 1. Filing a Complaint with the Public Body

Individuals who allege a violation of the Open Meeting Law must first file a complaint with the public body alleged to have violated the OML.  The complaint must be filed within 30 days of the date of the violation, or the date the complainant could reasonably have known of the violation.  The complaint must be filed on a Complaint Form pdf format of OML Complaint Form
available on the AGO website. When filing a complaint with a local public body, the complainant must also file a copy of the complaint with the municipal clerk.

Step 2. The Public Body's Response

 Upon receipt, the chair of the public body should distribute copies of the complaint to the members of the public body for their review.  The public body has 14 business days from the date of receipt to review the complainant’s allegations, take remedial action if appropriate, notify the complainant of the remedial action, and forward a copy of the complaint and description of the remedial action taken to the Attorney General.  While the public body may delegate responsibility for responding to the complaint to counsel or another individual, it must first meet to do so. 

The public body may request additional information from the complainant.  The public body may also request an extension of time to respond to the complaint.  A request for an extension should be made within 14 business days of receipt of the complaint by the public body.  The request for an extension should be made in writing to the Division of Open Government and should include a copy of the complaint and state the reason for the requested extension.

Step 3. Filing a Complaint with the Attorney General's Office

A complaint is ripe for review by the Attorney General 30 days after the complaint is filed with the public body.  This 30-day period is intended to provide a reasonable opportunity for the complainant and the public body to resolve the initial complaint.  It is important to note that complaints are not automatically treated as filed for review by the Attorney General upon filing with the public body.  A complainant who has filed a complaint with a public body and seeks further review by the Division of Open Government must file the complaint with the Attorney General after the 30-day local review period has elapsed but before 90 days have passed since the date of the violation or the date that the violation was reasonably discoverable.  

When filing the complaint with the Attorney General, the complainant must include a copy of the original complaint and may include any other materials the complainant feels are relevant, including an explanation of why the complainant is not satisfied with the response of the public body.  Note, however, that the Attorney General will not review allegations that were not raised in the initial complaint filed with the public body.  Under most circumstances, complaints filed with the Attorney General, and any documents submitted with the complaint, will be considered a public record and will be made available to anyone upon request.

The Attorney General will review the complaint and any remedial action taken by the public body.  The Attorney General may request additional information from both the complainant and the public body.  The Attorney General will seek to resolve complaints in a reasonable period of time, generally within 90 days of the complaint becoming ripe for review by our office.  The Attorney General may decline to investigate a complaint that is filed with our office more than 90 days after the date of the alleged violation.

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When is a violation of the law considered "intentional"?

Upon finding a violation of the Open Meeting Law, the Attorney General may impose a civil penalty upon a public body of not more than $1,000 for each intentional violation.  G.L. c. 30A, § 23(c)(4).  An “intentional violation” is an act or omission by a public body or public body member in knowing violation of the Open Meeting Law.  G.L. c. 30A, § 18.  In determining whether a violation was intentional, the Attorney General will consider, among other things, whether the public body or public body member 1) acted with specific intent to violate the law; 2) acted with deliberate ignorance of the law’s requirements; or 3) had been previously informed by a court decision or advised by the Attorney General that the conduct at issue violated the Open Meeting Law.  940 CMR 29.02.  If a public body or public body member made a good faith attempt at compliance with the law but was reasonably mistaken about its requirements or, after full disclosure, acted in good faith compliance with the advice of counsel, its conduct will not be considered an intentional violation of the Law.  G.L. c. 30A, § 23(g); 940 CMR 29.02.

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Will the Attorney General's Office provide training on the Open Meeting Law?

The Open Meeting Law directs the Attorney General to create educational materials and provide training to public bodies to foster awareness of and compliance with the Open Meeting Law.  The Attorney General has established an Open Meeting Law website, www.mass.gov/ago/openmeeting, on which government officials and members of public bodies can find the statute, regulations, FAQs, training materials, the Attorney General’s determination letters resolving complaints, and other resources.  The Attorney General offers periodic webinars and in-person regional training events for members of the public and public bodies, in addition to offering a free online training video. 

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Contacting the Attorney General

If you have any questions about the Open Meeting Law or anything contained in this guide, please contact the Attorney General’s Division of Open Government.  The Attorney General also welcomes any comments, feedback, or suggestions you may have about the Open Meeting Law or this guide.

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Division of Open Government
Office of the Attorney General
One Ashburton Place
Boston, MA 02108
(617) 963-2540
www.mass.gov/ago/openmeeting
OpenMeeting@state.ma.us