Date: August 2017
Beyond routine board meetings, elected boards conduct work sessions where the board takes no official action as part of their activities. As a quorum or more of the board is typically present at these sessions, the question arises as to whether the Minnesota Open Meeting Law applies to work sessions.
When members of a public body come together to conduct business, the public should have the opportunity to observe and be informed about the issues and actions of their representatives.1 In this spirit, the Minnesota Open Meeting Law (OML) was enacted. The OML applies to all meetings of the public body (elected board) and in general meetings of its committees and subcommittees. The OML does not define “meeting.” Therefore, entities must rely on case law to interpret those gatherings that may be subject to the law.
The law applies when a quorum (a majority of the members of the public body) is present. The gathering of a quorum constitutes a meeting if “members discuss, decide, or receive information as a group on issues relating to the official business of the governing body.”2
Whenever a quorum of a board meets outside of its routine meetings, the elected officials need to be cognizant of not discussing business or obtaining information that will guide later decisions regarding the business of the entity. For example, in St. Cloud Newspapers Inc. v. District 742 Community Schools, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled any “scheduled” gathering of all members of a governing body at which information is received that may influence later decisions of such bodies must be noticed and open, whether or not action is taken or contemplated.
That case involved members of the school board who attended general meetings where financial information would later be used to determine whether to close schools in the district. A “work session” of the board is a gathering of board members to discuss official business of the public body based on this court case, thus the open meeting law applies to work sessions.
It may be less confusing for board members and the public to call such gatherings “meetings” or label them both, as in “meeting: work session of the board.” The OML applies whether or not any action is taken by the board.
The notice required by the Open Meeting Law depends on the type of meeting being held. The OML classifies meetings as regular, special, emergency and recessed or continued. Regular meetings are those conducted routinely or on a prescribed schedule. A schedule of regular board meetings must include times and locations and must be kept on file at its primary office. Usually the schedule of regular meetings is determined at the annual meeting of the board.
Special meetings are meetings not conducted as part of the normal routine but are planned far enough in advance to be scheduled. The discussion and the board’s actions at a special meeting are limited to only those topics specified in the notice of a special meeting. Written notice must be posted with the date, time, place and purpose of the meeting on the principal bulletin board or on the door of the public body’s usual meeting room. The written notice must be posted at least three days (72 hours) before the meeting. In addition, the notice must be mailed or otherwise delivered at least three days before the meeting to each person who has filed a written request for notice of special meetings. Further discussion of meeting types and notices required is included in the resource Minnesota Open Meeting Law available at MCIT.org/resource/.
The board is not required by the Open Meeting Law to allow for public comment (unless it is meeting to hold a public hearing). Many boards choose to allow for comment from the public and limit the amount of time a person may speak.
Minutes of the board meeting/work session are not required by the OML; however, the Official Records Act, requires that public officials maintain a record of board members’ votes on actions taken in meetings required to be open by the OML.3 And there is a requirement that in a journal a record be kept of board members’ votes on actions taken during open meetings.4
Most boards find that the minutes serve to make a record of official proceedings and votes. If the board decides that no action will be taken at a meeting/work session, then it may be possible to forego the keeping of minutes. If the board is reviewing and adopting a budget, for instance, the board may want to have a record of that meeting to show the due diligence of the board in representing the public’s interests.
Although the board members may not be the ones actually to notice the meeting/work session, develop the agenda and take the minutes, board members are responsible for following the requirements of the Open Meeting Law. Board members are the ones to be fined for violations of the OML, not staff. So it would be good risk management to review the procedures staff follow and ensure that the law is being followed. The county attorney or other legal counsel should be consulted for any questions related to the procedures.
Assistance and Resources
Application of the open meeting law to a board meeting or gathering of members of the public body should be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. The county attorney or other legal counsel should be consulted on how to apply the OML to each board’s situation. MCIT has a number of resources about the Open Meeting Law available in its online Resource Library at MCIT.org/resource/.