Michigan’s Open Meetings Act: An introduction
Michigan’s Open Meetings Act was written to ensure that the governmental decision-making process would be accessible to Michigan residents.
Michigan’s second constitution, written in 1850, states that the county board “shall sit with open doors.” It is this spirit of openness of government that inspired the Open Meetings Act. In fact, nearly all of the court decisions and Attorney General’s opinions addressing the Act have interpreted it liberally in favor of openness. It has been said that for government to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” it must be open to the people. In this article series which includes “Michigan’s Open Meetings Act: Explore the details” and “Michigan’s Open Meetings Act: Understanding closed Sessions,” we’ll explore the Open Meetings Act in more depth.
The Open Meetings Act (OMA) was written in 1976, as was the Freedom of Information Act. These two laws, known as Michigan’s “sunshine laws,” are designed to make government processes and information more open to the public. Both laws were written in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam war era.
Many educators in Michigan State University (MSU) Extension like to refer to the following general rule: “Any person has a right to attend a meeting of any public body at any time unless the meeting is declared to fall under one of ten statutory exceptions.” It is a pretty good one-sentence guide to a sometimes complex combination of law, court interpretations and attorney general opinions relating to OMA.
It is important to keep in mind that the OMA applies to governmental bodies, those “empowered by state constitution, statute, charter, ordinance, resolution or rule to exercise…governmental authority.” It does not apply to corporations, non-profits, churches or the like.
The law guarantees several rights of citizens. The public has a right to record meetings, within the bounds of reasonable rules which the public body may write to minimize disruption of the meetings. The public, likewise, has a right to address the public body, also within the bounds of rules written to facilitate orderly meetings and protecting everyone’s right to address the board. An individual can only be removed from a meeting for a breach of the peace committed at that meeting.
Social or chance gatherings, or conferences which are not intended to avoid the OMA, are exempt. These types of gatherings often are treated with suspicion by the press and the public. It is important for public bodies to be careful not to discuss government business during these gatherings. This can be accomplished by paying careful attention to what the OMA says about deliberations and decisions.
In the second article in this series, “Michigan’s Open Meetings Act: Explore the details,” available September 17, we will address decisions, deliberations, meeting notices and minutes.