Date: June 2019
On board meeting days, it is not unusual for the board to recess for lunch and then reconvene to conclude its business. MCIT has received several inquiries about whether the Open Meeting Law applies if a quorum of board members eats lunch together. It is presumed that no local government business is being conducted or discussed during lunch, and as such, is social.
When determining whether the Open Meeting Law applies, it is important to start with some basics. Generally the Open Meeting Law applies to:
- a state agency, board commission or department when it is required or permitted by law to transact public business in a meeting.
- the governing body of any school district, unorganized territory, county, city, town, or other public body.
- a committee, subcommittee, board, department or commission of a public body subject to the law.
The statute does not define “public body.” Courts have indicated that it is “the broadest expression for the category of government entities.”1 The open meeting law applies to a quorum or more of members of the governing body or a committee, subcommittee, board, department or commission of the governing body.
The purpose of the Open Meeting Law is to: 1) prohibit actions from being taken at a secret meeting where it is impossible for the interested public to become fully informed concerning a public body’s decision or to detect improper influences; 2) to assure the public’s right to be informed; and 3) to afford the public an opportunity to present its views to the public body.
The presumption of openness is not absolute, and it may be outweighed by other concerns. A balancing test exists between “the public’s right to be informed” and its “right to the effective and efficient administration of public bodies.”2 However, adopting procedures that foreclose “public discussion altogether,” that effectively permit the final decision to be made in private, or that conceal “improper influences such as the personal or pecuniary interest of a public official,” will not be permitted.3
Courts have defined the term “meeting” for the purposes of the Open Meeting Law as a meeting between a quorum or more of the members at which members discuss, decide or receive information as a group on issues relating to the official business of that governing body.4 The Open Meeting Law cannot be circumvented by having serial meetings with less than a quorum of the members.5 A violation of law occurs if the process was “designed” to avoid public hearings.6 A meeting does not include “chance or social gatherings,” but “a quorum may not, as a group, discuss or receive information on official business in any setting.”7
Because board members eating together at a nonworking lunch do not discuss, decide or receive information as a group on issues relating to the official business of that governing body, a strong argument exists that such a gathering is outside the definition of “meeting.” However, board members must be extremely vigilant to make sure that any such information that could come before the board is not discussed. Also, board members should be aware of the public perception that their conduct may create even if completely legal.
MCIT recommends that board members consult with their legal counsel regarding any questions they have related to social gatherings and the Open Meeting Law.