The Commonwealth of Massachusetts adopted in 1958 its first open meeting law applicable to governmental units at the state, county and municipal levels. The first statute was fairly general in approach, and after a series of amendments over the years, the Open Meeting Law was substantially revamped in 1975. There have been a number of amendments to the Law since 1975, but its general format and provisions have remained the same.
The purpose of the Open Meeting Law is to eliminate much of the secrecy surrounding the deliberations and decisions on which public policy is based. It accomplishes this purpose by requiring open discussion of governmental action at public meetings. The requirements of the Open Meeting Law grow out of the idea that the democratic process depends on the public having knowledge about the considerations underlying governmental action taken by their representatives. The overriding intent of the Open Meeting Law is therefore to foster and indeed require open discussion of governmental action at public meetings. Yet the Law does recognize that public officials might be “unduly hampered” if all discussion by public officials were required to be open. As a result, it specifies certain types of issues that may be discussed and decided in a closed session. These exceptions are limited in number and scope.
The Law applies to those meetings of governmental bodies in which a quorum of the body convenes to deliberate on any public business or policy within its jurisdiction. The terms meeting, governmental body, deliberation, and quorum are specifically defined in the law – M.G.L. Chapter 39, §23A.
For covered meetings, the Law lays out specific procedures that must be followed. Most important is that the meeting be open to the public except in nine specific circumstances that are described in the statute. If one of the exceptions applies, the governmental body can meet in an executive session (closed session), provided it follows certain preparatory steps. Other critical procedural requirements are that records be maintained of all meetings (including executive sessions) and be made available to the public, and that notice of all meetings be publicly posted at least 48 hours in advance of the meeting. In Tyngsborough the bulletin board in the Town Hall breezeway at 25 Bryant Lane is the official posting location for all meetings. In addition, meetings are posted on the Town’s web site.
Responsibility for enforcement of the Law at the local levels is vested in the District Attorney. For more information, visit the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office OML Division, where you will also find a link to their OML Guideline Booklet – http://www.middlesexda.com/