Open Meetings Policy
Written by Patrick Conant and published on 12/12/2021
We believe government works best when they build with, not for, an informed and engaged community. We believe that local government, that which is closest to the people, has the greatest ability to implement accessible, participatory systems for public meetings.
Because we value accessibility, equity, and transparency, we envision a collaborative effort to improve three key areas:
Knowledge is power, and local government will empower community members with the information necessary to participate effectively in the government process.
Local government will provide an easy way to access basic information about the Boards, Commissions, and Committees that support the work of our local government.
Local government will publish and maintain resources listing the active members, supporting staff and departments for each government entity. If members of the public have questions or need direct assistance, they should easily be able to find the necessary contact information for representatives and staff.
The public will know the regular meeting schedule and clear, up-to-date information on upcoming and past meetings. All meeting agendas, documents, and other materials will be provided in advance so that the public can participate with an informed perspective.
Government will make this information easy to find and navigate in an accessible format.
Local government will increase public participation and remove barriers to access by modernizing the public meeting process. Public meetings will provide a variety of ways for the public to watch or participate in the meeting. Meetings will be held on a consistent schedule at an easily accessible location for those who choose to attend in person.
To build a fair and equitable system for participation, residents will be directly involved in the establishment and modification of the policies regarding public meetings and public input.
Public participation in the government process is a core component of democracy.
In North Carolina, the state Open Meetings Law provides high-level guidelines regarding notice for public meetings and requirements to allow public comment.
Furthermore, case law establishes ways in which public comment periods create a “public forum” with First Amendment protections.
However, beyond these state-level guidelines, many government entities do not possess clear, modern policies for how public meetings are conducted.
To empower the public to participate effectively in the government process, local government will provide information regarding the structure, membership, and other basic information regarding public bodies and their meetings.
A local government entity will create a single, searchable resource to contain information regarding all the Boards, Commissions, Committees, and other public bodies.
This information will be posted on a comprehensive, publicly accessible website, and all information will be kept up to date.
At a minimum, this resource will contain:
For each public body, the following information will be listed in a clear and accessible format:
Each public body should also make available clear information on all past or upcoming public meetings.
Local government entities will strive to create a consistent process between all public bodies to reduce confusion and ensure that members of the public have clear expectations regarding the norms, rules, and expectations of each public body.
Local government entities will establish a clear process and set of expectations regarding how questions, concerns, or inquiries from the public should be directed. They will also set clear expectations for timely responses to any concerns.
For the public to participate effectively in public meetings, they must be provided with access to information describing the work of a given public body.
All agendas, documents, presentations, and other materials will be posted on the website and distributed to the mailing list 72 hours prior to the start time. Meeting materials will be posted publicly and not provided solely to members of a body.
If extenuating circumstances arise that prevent the public body from fulfilling its obligations under this section, the public body should clearly describe the circumstances to the public during an open meeting.
All meeting materials should include a date of publication. If modifications are made to a document, it should be done in a manner that allows the public to see the original document, the revised version, and the modifications made. All revised documents should include a clear indication of the date and time the revised version was published.
To remove barriers to access and increase equity in public participation, public bodies will ensure that meeting materials are provided in an accessible format:
All public bodies should provide a single point of contact who is tasked with responding to questions about meeting materials or issues accessing them. The single point of contact will be accessible via email and phone, and this information will be published in a prominent location on the public body’s webpage and within the text of all public meeting agendas. The public body should work to ensure that all timely questions are answered in advance of the next public meeting.
Public bodies will record and report on their compliance with the provisions of the open meetings policy on a quarterly basis. The format of these reports will be consistent so that the public entity and members of the public are able to easily compare compliance between public bodies.
Public bodies will take all reasonable measures to remove barriers to access to their public meetings.
Meetings will be held on a consistent schedule, with the time and location of meetings clearly noticed to the public. Meeting locations should be easily accessible by all residents, and considerations will be made regarding transportation to the location and ADA accommodations within the physical space.
All meeting materials will be accessible to attendees of the meeting in both digital and physical formats. Translation and interpretation services will be provided during meetings upon advance request by any member of the public.
All public meetings will be live-streamed on a publicly accessible platform at no cost to the public. If the public body livestreams meetings on a third-party platform, such as YouTube, the body will retain a copy of the video. All public meetings will provide audio-only feeds of meetings that can be accessed online and via telephone. All public meetings should be recorded and posted online within 24 hours of the conclusion of the meeting.
Public bodies, where legally permissible, will allow for members to participate “virtually” with the same privileges provided to those who attend meetings in-person.
Public bodies will establish a commitment to increase public participation by providing clear and consistent guidelines, a variety of methods for input, and a clear process for resolution of any issues that may arise.
Rules for public participation will be provided in written form. This document will include a description of any processes that allow for exceptions or suspension of the rules. These may include limitations put in place due to the volume of participation.
These guidelines will contain a clear indication of the date they were adopted and last modified. Guidelines for public participation should not be changed without sufficient public notice prior to a meeting. These guidelines will contain a clear description of the governance structure for their adoption and modification.
The public will be provided with a variety of methods to participate in public meetings. These methods will include options to participate during the meeting, as well as options to provide public input before or after the meeting time.
At a minimum, the public should be provided options to participate in the following ways:
There will be a clear process to resolve issues with public participation, whether they are technical or procedural in nature. Public bodies will clearly define who has the authority to enforce public comment guidelines and how disagreements over decisions may be appealed.
To create a process for public participation that is fair and equitable, the public will possess significant authority in the process that governs the guidelines for public participation.
Typically, the guidelines for public meetings and public participation are determined by the relevant public body without any formal process for the review and adoption of modifications to these rules.
Under an Open Meetings Policy, local government will adopt a formal process for the review and adoption of all policies regarding public meetings and public participation. To support this effort, an Open Meetings Commission will be created, tasked with evaluating and adopting guidelines regarding public meetings and public participation in the government process. This commission should be composed of residents of the relevant jurisdiction.
This Commission will be empowered to review, modify, and approve all of the guidelines described in Section 3.
An Open Meetings Commission will seek input from government staff and members of public bodies. However, it is critical that those most impacted by these guidelines – the public – remain centered in these discussions.
We recommend that local government endeavors to appoint members with intention, and suggest the following criteria for consideration:
To further ensure the independence of the Commision, we recommend that half of the membership of the Commission is appointed by the Commission itself.
The Open Meetings Commission will strive to operationalize the vision of increasing participation and removing barriers to access in the government process. The Commission will balance these goals with technical and procedural challenges to allow the work of government to proceed in an efficient and effective manner.
This Commission will strive to serve as a model of transparency and public participation. The Commission will be bound by this Open Meetings Policy. The Commission will provide consistent opportunities for the public to provide feedback on all policies regarding public meetings.
The Open Meetings Commision will be empowered to provide accountability regarding the consistent implementation of open meeting policies.
If any public body suspends or modifies their rules for public participation at a given meeting, this modification will be documented and reported to the Open Meetings Commission. The Open Meetings Commission will review the action taken and the circumstances regarding the action, and provide feedback to the public body.
If a member of the public experiences technical or procedural difficulties accessing meeting documents or participating in a public comment process, they may raise their concerns to the Open Meeting Commission. The Commission will be empowered to direct public bodies or staff to address concerns and to ensure equitable access to the government process.
To achieve the stated vision of an Open Meetings Policy, local government will document and report back on public participation outcomes.
After each public meeting, staff will document the volume of public comments, as well as the method utilized for participation.
Staff will document any issues, complaints, or other concerns raised by members of the public regarding access to meeting information or participation in the public meeting process.
Local government will conduct surveys or take other efforts to gather qualitative data around public engagement. Some possible metrics of interest include:
The Open Meetings Commission, each public body, and the general public will be provided with regular reports regarding the engagement of the public, challenges identified in the process, and the effectiveness of measures intended to increase public participation and remove barriers to access.