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Our members are the local governments of Massachusetts and their elected and appointed leadership.
At 5:40 p.m. yesterday, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an Executive Order suspending certain provisions of the open meeting law due to the ongoing COVID-19 public health emergency.
The order is intended to enable public bodies to carry out some of their responsibilities while adhering to public health recommendations regarding social distancing.
The order relieves public bodies from the requirement in the open meeting law that meetings be conducted in a public place that is open and physically accessible to the public, provided that the public body makes provision to ensure public access to the deliberations of the public body through adequate, alternative means.
According to the Attorney General’s Division of Open Government, which is charged with enforcing the law, “adequate, alternative means” may include, without limitation, providing public access through telephone, internet, or satellite enabled audio or video conferencing or any other technology that enables the public to clearly follow the proceedings of the public body in real time. A municipal public body that for reasons of economic hardship and despite best efforts is unable to provide alternative means of public access in real time may instead post on its municipal website a full and complete transcript, recording, or other comprehensive record of the proceedings as soon as practicable afterwards.
In addition, all members of a public body may participate in a meeting remotely, the AG’s office states. The open meeting law’s requirement that a quorum of the body and the chair be physically present at the meeting location is suspended.
All other provisions of the open meeting law, such as the requirements regarding posting notice of meetings and creating and maintaining accurate meeting minutes, as well as the limited, enumerated purposes for holding an executive session, remain in effect.
The governor’s executive order is responsive to many of the concerns that municipal officials have raised over the past several days as communities grapple with the public crisis.
Following the advice of public health professionals to reduce the spread of the virus, cities and towns are considering restricting access to many public buildings, seeking to hold meetings remotely, placing caps on the size of public meetings and events, and taking other actions to protect the public and those most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.
Without changes, the MMA has argued that the open meeting law and related regulations would make it virtually impossible to take all of these steps and conduct necessary governmental business.
“The governor’s Executive Order provides municipalities and state agencies with an important measure of relief from the open meeting law during the public health emergency,” said MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith. “The MMA has been in close contact with the governor’s office regarding open meeting law issues, and many others, and we appreciate that the administration is taking action to address those concerns.”
Local officials may want to consult with their municipal counsel to see how this action could provide relief or flexibility while moving forward with local actions under state law and local charter provisions to protect the public and the municipal workforce during this unprecedented emergency.
• Download the governor’s Executive Order Suspending Certain Provisions of the Open Meeting Law
• See MMA’s Coronavirus News and Resources for Local Government Leaders page
• Link to the state Civil Defense Act, which lays out what the governor may do during emergencies