Modernizing the Open Meetings Act

Michigan Law Revision Commission takes step forward

The Michigan Law Revision Commission, which evaluates comprehensive changes and updates to state statutes, met Nov. 5 to discuss the need to modernize the state’s Open Meetings Act. The OMA requires public bodies (school boards, city councils, etc.) to deliberate, make decisions and take action in a public meeting, with the goal of keeping the public fully informed about the actions of public bodies.

Communications technology has changed since the law was adopted in 1976 and the Michigan Law Revision Commission rightly seeks to address shortcomings in the way the law is written, particularly where the OMA drafters of 1976 simply couldn’t have anticipated e-mail, the Internet, cloud storage and other advances. MLRC reviewed six specific recommendations to amend the OMA:

  • Allow members of the public to record public meetings with any non-disruptive devices. Currently the law allows individuals to tape record, videotape and broadcast meetings live on radio and television. This amendment would allow members of the public to record meetings with any non-disruptive device and to live stream meetings online.
  • Post meeting notices on the public body’s website. Public bodies are required to notify the public of upcoming meetings. For regularly scheduled meetings, the law requires meeting notices to be posted at the agency’s principle office and other “appropriate” locations. This recommendation would mandate that the meeting notice also to be posted on the public body’s website if it maintains an official website.
  • Post minutes of public meetings on the public body’s website. Currently the law merely requires public bodies to maintain meeting minutes, keep them open to public inspection, and provide the minutes upon request. This amendment would mandate that public bodies also post minutes online on the body’s official website. (Public bodies that aren’t doing this already are missing a good opportunity to convey their commitment to transparency.)
  • Post other documents online. Similar to the recommendation to post meeting minutes online, this recommendation would require the posting of any documents that are the subject of an agenda item.
  • Consider circumstances in which a public body may conduct a meeting by videoconferencing, teleconferencing and webcasting. This is a good idea so long as the virtual meetings are fully accessible to members of the public, particularly elderly individuals.
  • Increase penalties for officials who violate the OMA. According to the MLRC report, the penalties for violating the law haven’t been adjusted since its adoption; the report recommends increasing the penalties to provide a stronger deterrent. 

The MLRC voted to pass these recommendations on the Legislature for consideration. This is an encouraging development and should garner bi-partisan support.

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The Legislature should consider additional ways to embrace technology to improve civic engagement. For example, meeting notices should also be posted on a public body’s social media accounts and distributed to an e-mail listserv for residents and news media who request notification. Public bodies are allowed to take some sensitive topics behind closed doors, but too often those closed session conversations veer into topics that should be discussed in open session. A taxpayer who suspects a violation of this rule usually cannot prove the violation, so the violation goes unpunished. A sensible solution would be to require public bodies to audio tape all closed sessions. Those recordings would remain exempt from disclosure, but if litigation occurs over an alleged OMA violation a judge could review the audio in private to evaluate whether a violation occurred. 

The Mackinac Center has been calling for modernizing the OMA and its companion statute, the Freedom of Information Act. Yesterday’s action was a meaningful step forward.  

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