With Town Buildings Closed, Portions of Open Meeting Law are Suspended

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant” is a quote variously attributed to Justice William O. Douglas or Justice Louis Brandeis. It is not about COVID-19, but about the value of conducting government in the open where citizens can see what is happening. This is the purpose of the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law (OML), which is to ensure that the public will be informed about and can participate in government meetings.

Among the requirements is a 48-hour public notice, posting of agendas, and meetings held in an accessible public space. These requirements are a problem in a public health emergency when many decisions need to be made quickly and citizens are urged to keep six feet apart.

On March 12 Governor Charles Baker signed an order temporarily suspending some requirements of OML in light of the risks of contagion of COVID-19. Under that order, no members of a board or committee would be required to meet in person. The rules requiring public notification and information on how the public may “attend” and participate remotely are still required. Typically this could be done through a conference call, the Internet, or audio/video technology. There may be no charge or fee in order to participate.

Bedford had already started to move in that direction. Several years ago Bedford Town Meeting adopted a provision that would allow remote participation in meetings with the requirement that the chair and a quorum of the board be physically present. Other members could join electronically from a remote location, participate and vote. Its primary use was expected to be by board members who were traveling. Now, during this emergency, everyone may attend remotely.

The Bedford Citizen will continue to post public meeting along with the ways to attend electronically.

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