Open meeting law in the age of social media

Jul 23, 2019

MARION — Social media can make for an easy violation of the open meeting law, Marion committee members learned Tuesday.

Town Administrator Jay McGrail invited Town Counsel Barbara Huggins Carboni to present on the law on July 23, after the town got “a couple of complaints made for open meeting laws against several of our boards,” McGrail said.

Open meeting law prevents any kind of deliberation (or discussion of a matter that the board is considering) outside of meetings. “The biggest thing that I’ve seen [for an open meeting law violation] is deliberation as it regards to email. Text, email and social media,” McGrail said.

Carboni advised board members not to respond to emails with anything beyond “I can attend on the seventh.” She said this is conservative, but the best guidance. 

Planning Board member Chris Collings asked if committees could have a public Facebook group that would be accessible to anyone who wanted to see.

Carboni responded that it would be a violation because committee business should only be conducted in a meeting.

Selectman John Waterman said that at a similar session on July 9 he learned that “someone in my position shouldn’t post on Facebook at all because it’s a way of inadvertently communicating with Mr. Parker and Mr. Hills,” his fellow board members.

Even phone calls between members can be tough.

If one person talks to another, and “that person calls someone else, and suddenly the whole committee knows your opinion through everyone else,” McGrail said.

Carboni also advised attendees to “picture a room in your head. If [the interaction is] outside the room, it’s an open meeting law violation.”

Planning Board member Andrew Daniel said the he had seen board members write Letters to the Editor to the paper, which effectively continued a meeting’s discussion.

Carboni said that “even if the matter was already decided upon, the better practice is not to do it,” since it would be “getting to the area of the violation”

The town counsel said that some of the open meeting law complaints against Marion were entirely without merit.

But open meeting law also covers how boards handle minutes, and Carboni said that “we’ve had several open meeting laws complaints that minutes were not prepared in time, some determined to be true.” This has happened  twice so far.

She said that minutes should be drafted after a meeting and reviewed at the next meeting.

She added that meeting minutes can be sent out by email and edits can be sent back only to board chair or staff, but actual approval has to be done at the meeting.

One committee member complained the system was not efficient.

“It’s not the efficient meeting law, it’s the open meeting law,” Carboni said.

Ultimately it’s the board members who are responsible for making sure the minutes get done in time, even if staff members are busy or away.

Another complaint that the town received was about the list of documents which are supposed to be attached to the minutes, but sometimes were not. 

McGrail also said that the town has “had complaints about executive session, about the language that we used to go into executive session.” To fix this he developed a script for board chairs to read when they go into executive session.

Marion also plans to hold a conflict of interest meeting.