First, let me say that I am not an Open Meeting Law expert, nor is my interpretation of the law fact. This is an opinion piece on how here in Westwood, Massachusetts, we have used the Open Meeting Law to keep our residents informed and remain as transparent as possible with the way our community leaders make decisions.
I have worked for the Town of Westwood as the Executive Assistant for the last eight years with the primary responsibility of supporting the Town Administrator in preparing packets for the biweekly Board of Selectmen meetings, including organization of the reports, attachments and proposed actions and maintaining all the records in the office.
Massachusetts Open Meeting Law (OML), M.G.L. Chapter 30A, §§18-25 was created to require communities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to be transparent in their governance. Westwood takes OML very seriously and we follow the law to the best of our ability. We spend a lot of time discussing OML with boards and committees, hold trainings for administrators and encourage residents to visit our website on a regular basis to help them better understand why and how our officials make decisions. In Westwood, Accela Legislative Management has really helped us take that transparency to the next level.
Making meeting notices available online with detailed agendas
In Westwood, we have perfected our meeting notices posting with the help of our Town Clerk, who is responsible for posting all notices. Per OML, c.30A, §20(b)(c), “a public body must post notice of every meeting at least 48 hours prior to the meeting.” In Westwood’s case, the Town’s cork bulletin board in Town Hall serves as our official public posting site, but the website is the most effective way to notify residents.
Although we do not use Accela Legislative Management as the official site, all of our Board of Selectmen (the Chief Executive Officers here in Westwood) meetings are maintained in this program. Once the meeting is officially posted by the Town Clerk, we place a link on the website to bring people directly to the online agenda. Here, each agenda item is detailed, and even includes the purpose, so anyone can see what exactly is being brought before the Board of Selectmen and, in most cases, why.
Certain information is required to be posted on the meeting notice: date and time of the meeting, location and list of topics to be discussed. By creating the agenda in Legislative Management in advance, these are autopopulated onto the agenda without extra thought or effort. Once your meeting schedule is setup, there is no additional work to be done. The information is then carried through the agenda and the entire report generation process.
Tying the video recording to the agenda with automatic timestamping
At the meeting, Westwood uses Accela Civic Streaming, part of the Legislative Management suite, which includes a video encoder that records the meeting through our Local Cable Access Television equipment, tying it right to the meeting’s agenda.
Once the encoder begins recording, it is livestreamed online, timestamped and immediately available to the public. The timestamping feature allows anyone to be able to go to a specific agenda item and watch that portion of the meeting, without fast forwarding or rewinding and trying to figure out where in the meeting the issue was actually discussed.
Sharing minutes and voting decisions by topic
OML, c.30A, §22 M.G.L. outlines the requirements for the recording and availability of the minutes for each public body meeting. The Legislative Management solution divides the meeting up into sections where the minutes summary on that topic is posted and easily accessible to the public. The decision the Board makes is highlighted along with how each member voted.
One of the ways Westwood has been able to increase transparency is by providing the purpose of each agenda item, rather than just the “anticipated list of topics to be discussed.” As residents become more engaged in an issue or topic, anyone can visit the web portal and review the purpose and background history. The search capability on the web portal also allows for us to share not only the agenda item purpose, but also the approved minutes, video from the meeting, the decision the Board took and even documents associated with the agenda item.
Westwood produces what we call “Decision Notices” on each of the votes taken by the Board of Selectmen. The decision, including the motion and the votes of each member, is compiled and sent out to interested parties. For example, if the Board approves a road race in Town, we send a copy of the decision to Police, Fire, DPW, the organization requesting the road race and any other individuals or departments the race might affect. A customized decision notice is attached to each agenda item, which becomes a published, searchable document that anyone can print out and review.
Published minutes are made available online for all residents to access without requiring a login.
Easily making attachments part of the official record
OML c.30A, §22(d) M.G.L. reads, “Documents and other exhibits, such as photographs, recordings or maps, used by the body at an open or executive session shall, along with the minutes, be part of the official record of the session.” This is one of those instances of how the law s interpreted differently by different communities. It is written broadly enough not to cause mandates or extra work for the administrators, but clearly enough so it can bring transparency to the community. Westwood has created a customized Attachment List Report that lists out every piece of backup information uploaded to Legislative Management. Once this neatly organized list is generated, it is printed out and attached to the minutes of that meeting.
Why is presenting a list of attachments at each meeting important? It feeds right into Public Records Law (M.G.L. c.66, §10) and records requests. Every record that is made or received by a government entity or employee is presumably public record (unless a specific statutory exemption permits or requires it to be withheld in whole or in part).
Reducing the number of public records requests
One of the biggest challenges is not complying with the Records Request, but fulfilling the request. Administrative Assistants have to spend the time researching and compiling all the documentation, and Town Council must interpret what exactly the request is for. This can be very time-consuming, and expensive for the residents (Public Records Law states that the Town may charge a fee for fulfilling the request).
With Legislative Management, agenda items, including the backup information, are one search away. The attachment lists the document title so requestors can specifically identify the document(s) they would like to see, saving both the Administrative Assistant and Town Counsel time and money.
While there are many other Open Meeting Law examples that can be realized with Legislative Management, these in particular have freed up staff time and reduced costs for the Town of Westwood. This allows for me to spend more time focusing on the issues, working with Department Heads to better understand what they are requesting of the Board and, even more importantly, ensuring the information and proposed actions presented are accurate and justified.
Westwood also moved its board and committee appointment process online. Learn more.