Guide for Members of Public Boards and Commissions: Chapter 8

Operate in compliance with the Massachusetts open meeting law.

Table of Contents

Get Familiar with the Open Meeting Law

When you were appointed, you should have received a copy of the state’s open meeting law. Similar to the conflict-of-interest law, the open meeting law applies to both your individual conduct and the board’s operations.

For example:

  • Public boards must give advanced notice of the topics that will be discussed at a meeting.
  • Meetings of public boards must be open to the public, although in limited circumstances members may hold certain aspects of the meeting in closed session, away from public view.
  • Discussing certain matters with other board members outside of a properly noticed meeting - such as by email or telephone - will likely violate the open meeting law. 

Once appointed, all public board members must sign a certification form stating that they have received certain educational materials, that they understand the requirements of the open meeting law and that they understand the consequences for violating it. These educational materials include the text of the law, the Attorney General’s regulations, the Attorney General’s Open Meeting Law Guide, and copies of all determination letters from the past five years where the Attorney General found that the public body had violated the open meeting law. 

Provide Notice to the Public of the Public Board Meeting

Because the open meeting law promotes openness and transparency in government, it contains specific notice requirements to ensure that the public knows – prior to the meeting – when and where the board will meet, along with what topics the board intends to discuss at the meeting. Except in the case of an emergency, a public board must provide notice of its meeting 48 hours in advance (excluding Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays).

The notice must include the date, time and location of the meeting, as well as a list of all topics that the chair reasonably anticipates will be discussed.2

Inform the Public of Discussion Topics

The law seeks to balance the public’s interest in witnessing the deliberations of public officials with the government’s need to manage its operations efficiently. Consequently, a board may only discuss the topics listed in the meeting notice, unless the topic was not reasonably anticipated when the notice was posted.

While public bodies (such as boards) may discuss topics that were not reasonably anticipated by the chair, the Massachusetts Attorney General encourages public bodies to postpone discussion of any topics of significant public concern until notice can be given to the public.

Inform the Public of Executive Sessions

Further, while most board discussions must be public, there are certain situations in which the board may vote to meet in private. In these instances, your public board may discuss a matter in what is known as an “executive session.” An executive session may be held for any of ten permissible reasons, as specified in the open meeting law.

See Appendix B at the end of this guide for a list of the ten permissible reasons for entering executive session.

Public bodies are required to post notice of anticipated executive sessions, listing the topics to be discussed behind closed doors with as much detail as possible without compromising the lawful purpose for secrecy. Public bodies must begin meetings in open session before entering executive session and must take a vote to enter executive session, again providing as much detail as possible about what will be discussed.

Avoid Communicating Board Business Outside of Noticed Meetings

The open meeting law prohibits communication between or among a quorum of a public board outside of a noticed meeting on any business within that board’s jurisdiction.3 Therefore, a series of telephone calls or emails between a quorum of board members – often referred to as “serial deliberations” – could violate the open meeting law. This is because the public is entitled to notice and an opportunity to witness deliberations concerning board business.

Ask Important Questions

  • Does your public organization post meeting notices in advance?
  • Do members discuss only what is on the agenda at the meeting?
  • Does your board vote to enter "executive session" properly and only for the reasons set forth in the open meeting law?
  • Does your board have practices in place to ensure that members do not have serial deliberations that violate the open meeting law?

Learn More About the Open Meeting Law

The open meeting law addresses many topics, such as remote participation and meeting minutes, that are not discussed here.

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (AGO) is responsible for  interpreting and enforcing the open meeting law. It produces a comprehensive guide to the open meeting law, as well as helpful educational material and rulings. The AGO also provides in-person and online trainings about the open meeting law. Visit the AGO’s website, or contact the AGO’s Division of Open Government at (617) 963-2540 to learn more about the open meeting law.  

Additional Resources

Contact   for Guide for Members of Public Boards and Commissions: Chapter 8

2 The open meeting law also contains additional requirements concerning meeting notices, including where the notice must be posted.

3 For the purposes of the open meeting law, a quorum is a simple majority of the members of the public board. For example, in the case of a five-member board, the quorum would be three.

Date published: February 1, 2022
Image credits:  Shutterstock

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