Public Boards: Best Practices for Following Open-Meeting Laws

Lena Eisenstein

Even the hint of exclusionary practices by a public board can destroy a fragile trust that takes years to build. Eager journalists and watchdog citizens scrutinize public board actions for any signs of foul play. Charleston, South Carolina, now faces an irate citizenry because it notified the public of a construction project only after it had deliberated its merits in private. Charleston is not alone. Public boards implementing six best practices can meet and exceed the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, the Public Meetings Act and state-level refinements of those laws.

Best Practices for Complying with Open-Meeting Laws

  1. Post meeting agendas and minutes on a public-facing website.

Original public meeting laws call for posting meeting notices and agendas by a set deadline outside a public office. Think Martin Luther tacking his 95 Theses on the cathedral door in Wittenberg. One by one, states are requiring boards to post those meeting materials online.

California's Brown Act calls for school boards, in particular, to post meeting notices and agendas online by January 2019. Other states are following suit.

This move has proven to be an unexpected boon to citizen engagement, as it draws in sectors of the population traditionally excluded. Energetic younger citizens, in particular, are making unprecedented contributions to public business. Twenty-somethings, young parents and dual-career families lack the leisure or interest to stroll past Town Hall with a spiral notebook to jot down meeting details. The medium caters to retirees, the paranoid and the able-bodied. Sound familiar? By contrast, absolutely anyone with access to the internet can find material that is posted online, even in the middle of the night.

In the move to create a public-facing website, beware two sand traps on the course ahead:

  • Some public-facing website hosts lack fundamental security features. Public file-sharing sites like Google Docs practically invite hackers to hijack your information. They often offer no encryption or limited encryption (128-bit, not 256-bit). What's more, they park your documents on the public cloud, where even an amateur hacker could break in.
  • Many website-hosting services have a tepid commitment to public boards. They might abandon the public-facing website altogether to focus on the intranet features that private clients prefer, as SharePoint did this summer. Stranded public customers must now hire 'migration managers' to handle the move to a new website host.

Top-quality board portal software includes a public-facing website that is fully secured. Portal software companies that cater to public entities will never abandon the public boards that are their top-tier target market.

  1. Make meeting attachments searchable.

Searchable documents are currently required only for public records (not public meetings) and only in some states (not all). Whether or not it becomes universally required by law, nothing screams 'transparency' like offering your meeting attachments in a searchable format. A good board portal stores board business in a digital archive that can be searched by keyword across files. (Rather than open all 20 files, say, a concerned citizen can conduct a single meta-search that penetrates all files and formats.) A great board portal stores unlimited data on the archive at no extra cost. When the agenda refers readers to archived materials, the documents are fully searchable.

  1. Make meeting agendas, attachments and minutes accessible to handicapped constituents.

Not only young adults miss traditional postings outside public buildings. So do the blind, the nonambulatory, the agoraphobic and the disfigured. Once a board moves to a public-facing website, it will face Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance laws that require maximizing access to all such marginalized populations. And why not? More participants mean more contributions of time, talent and ideas.

Board portal software that is fully ADA compliant provides all the research and technological adaptations that you need. Executives of industry-leading BoardDocs sit alongside leaders of the Office of Civil Rights as they plan future updates to regulations. Its sophisticated technical team handles the multiple adaptations required to address a dizzying array of sensory, mechanical and cognitive impairments: audio-to-text conversion for the blind, mouse-searchable text for those who cannot press keyboard keys, and many, many more accommodations.

  1. Protect your materials from bad actors.

In the zeal to make meeting materials more 'open,' it is possible to invite the wrong people to see the wrong information at the wrong time. Many cybercriminals favor public boards; their business model features a large volume of attacks on relatively small fish that could nevertheless access the $51,000 that is their average 'ransom.' The public could also get a peek at confidential materials intended for the board only ' health records, credit card numbers or medical histories. Two practices minimize this formidable risk:

  • Store documents on a private cloud-based fully encrypted server, not on 'the cloud.' A private cloud-based server stores your data off the four-lane highway that is the public 'cloud.' Many a hacked Google Docs user has rued his ignorance of the difference. Maximum protection also calls for full 256-bit encryption.
  • Automate segregation of board materials from public materials. Board members often must see highly sensitive information that the general public absolutely must not see ' not even once. Most people, though, have a story of a time that the wrong people saw the wrong material. Maybe they sent a critical evaluation of a colleague not only to the boss, but also to the colleague herself. 

  1. Limit board texting and emails.

If one board member texts another during a board meeting, the two have broken the open-meeting laws in many states. Smart boards ban texting during meetings. While they're at it, they stop using the standard texting app that comes with smartphones; they're too easy to intercept. The best practice is to provide board members with a secure texting app instead; it keeps data far more secure. Top-of-the-line board portal software includes such an app.

In some states, when a chain email goes out to multiple board members who respond to the group, it violates open-meeting laws by creating a 'rolling quorum' outside prescribed meeting parameters. Smart boards ban board communication over email as a result. Board portal software like BoardDocs offers an alternative space for board communication.

  1. Post video of meeting proceedings.

You already provide the public with access to your minutes and agendas. Why do journalists have to broadcast the actual video or audio footage? It casts the board as the suspect, the journalist as the detective. Though not required in all states, voluntarily posting your own video or audiotape in a streamable format sends a clear signal: 'We have nothing to hide.' With the right board portal software, it's easy for the board itself to post video seamlessly alongside the agenda and minutes of a meeting.

Top board portal software empowers public boards to meet all six best practices for open meetings. Expect results: Constituents who once cried 'no confidence' may well now ask 'How can I help?'

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Lena Eisenstein
Lena Eisenstein is a former Manager at Diligent. Her expertise in mission-driven organizations, including nonprofits, school boards and local governments, centers on how technology and modern governance best practices empower leaders at these organizations to serve their communities with efficiency and purpose.