Thursday, January 5, 2012

Is it a Party -- or a Meeting?

In Maryland, a "meeting" involves a quorum of a public body discussing public business.

There are problems with the idea that there's no "meeting" if there isn't a numerical, physical "quorum" interacting in person or by speakerphone/videoconference, but that topic is something for another time.

Many public bodies get confused about the fine line between standing and chatting, and standing and deciding. Others have trouble with the idea that a quorum which is attending a briefing or gathering information without necessarily intending to vote on anything, is indeed having a meeting.

So in hopes of clarifying, here are some simple guidelines; a few quotations from some Compliance BOard opinions; and a collection of quorum-related Opinions from the OMCB's index.

Lotsa links are at the end.

Meeting Notice:

The only time a quorum can be together without public notice is a “chance encounter” or a “social gathering.” For example, it’s OK for the council to be at the annual fire company dinner – as long as there’s no discussion of public business.

Since a "social gathering" can become an illegal public meeting in the blink of an eye, the only sensible thing to do is to notify the public of all situations where a quorum might show up.

What a Quorum Talks About:

The quorum who might be socializing, or who have bumped into each other, is not allowed to discuss any public business. Once that occurs, the law has been violated because the “social gathering” has become a “meeting.” Lack of notice is a violation, and failing to prepare and publish minutes is a violation.

Compliance Board Opinions on What Makes a Meeting
All opinions are available online. See

Opinion 7 OMCB 85
Galena Town Council 2010-11

Meeting - Presence of quorum of Town Council at meeting with Library Trustees concerning funding request for consideration by Council triggered Open Meetings Act.

We conclude that the Town Council violated the Open Meetings Act when it met with two Library trustees to receive information concerning the Library’s request that the Town increase its subsidy. Given the Mayor’s decision to cut that meeting short and defer discussion of the request to a public meeting, we believe that the violation was not intentional and will not be repeated."

Elizabeth L. Nilson, Esquire
Courtney J. McKeldin
Julio A. Morales, Esquire

OMCB 93-1
Rock Hall, 1993

Impromptu hallway meeting is subject to all procedural requirements for a closed session [because, with a quorum present, it is in fact a public meeting].

"The Open Meetings Act is applicable to the "impromptu meeting" at 7:15 p.m. The matter under discussion related to the enactment of an ordinance, manifestly a "legislative function" within the meaning of §10-502(f) of the State Government Article, Maryland Code. Further, a majority of the Council was present in the hallway to consider information directly relevant to this item of public business. Despite the impromptu nature of the session, it was a "meeting" of a public body as defined in §10-502(g).

"… Because the Rock Hall Town Council did not follow those procedures, it violated
the Act."

Walter Sondheim, Jr.
Courtney McKeldin
Tyler G. Webb

Mayor and Council of Rockville

Open Session Requirement - Brief, Closed-door discussion involving quorum, held to be a violation.

"A discussion of this kind among a quorum of Council members was indeed a violation. See generally 1 OMCB Opinions 92 (1994) (Opinion 94-6). The Compliance Board commends the Mayor and Council for promptly recognizing the problem and taking appropriate steps to correct it.

"The Compliance Board is concerned that the Commissioners, as they reported in their response, discussed "what needed to be accomplished when they resumed the work session ...." It is obvious to the Compliance Board that a discussion of this nature would lead inevitably to talk about the merits of that which is to be accomplished. It may well be, however, that this discussion ended quickly with the resolve to return to the Commissioners' Meeting Room, the only place where any discussion on the merits of the budget and on tax revenues should have been conducted."

Walter Sondheim, Jr.
Tyler Webb
Courtney McKeldin

See also:

7 OMCB 21    
West Towson Elementary School Boundary Study Committee
Notice - Quorum anticipated - Notice required even if, at session, quorum fails to attend

7 OMCB 269
Mayor and Town Council of Brentwood
Determined to be a meeting - Social gathering and chance encounter exception - not applicable when used to discuss public business

6 OMCB 155
Town of Forest Heights
Meeting - Convening of quorum of council during course of informally designated subgroup meeting - Triggered Open Meetings Act

Information Gathering or Briefing

Opinions 93-2, 93-6, 95-7, 97-2
Information-gathering at the earliest stages of policy formulation is part of the consideration of public business and therefore is a meeting

Other Opinions
A note on how they indexed these things: they changed the scheme several times. So 4 OMCB page 122 means, fourth volume, page 122; 01-2 page 78 means second opinion dated 2001, starting page 78 of whatever volume contains 2001). The method they've settled on now is 7 OMCB 65 meaning Vol. 7, page 65.

• Determined to be a meeting:

-School Board discussion with County legislative delegation 4 OMCB page 122
-Announcement, by chairman, at social gathering of process for handling topic 01-2 page 78
-Convening “accidental quorum” to hear briefing about budget process 00-8 page 30
-Convening quorum for informal identification of consensus about an issue 01-2 page 7
-Retreat at which matters of public business were discussed 01-10 page 122
-Topic of future meeting agenda discussion when quorum present 01-2 page 78
-Opportunity for a public body’s quorum to explore issues as a group and exchange comments and reactions 98-2 page 5

• When quorum of public body attends meeting of an entity that is not a public body, applicability of Act depends on whether public body is itself considering public business

98-8 page 27        92-2 page 6        94-9 page 104
95-4 page 120      95-10 page 142   96-3 page 157
96-10 page 183

• Informal gathering before a meeting or during a break is permissible so long as no discussion occurs about meeting topics

94-6 page 92        95-6 page 127        96-3 page 157

• Determined not to be a meeting:

-Dinner at which quorum attended but discussion limited to social matters
4 OMCB 58        02-11 page 224

-Breakfast gathering at which public business was not conducted 03-2 page 257
-Budget retreat called by Mayor which council members attended 02-14 page 242
-Gathering limited to effort at improving interpersonal relation 03-5 page 274

-Session convened by private entity at which public body did not engage in discussion of public business 03-12 page 310
-Session organized by school board staff in which each board member participated in a separate small group discussions 01-17 page 150

-Conversation among quorum limited to personal information or social “small talk”
99-6 page 49        95-7 page 129

-Social event - general topical presentation is not a meeting 97-7 page 227

-Social event - public business is mentioned only briefly and in passing
98-2 page 5        99-13 page 74        99-17 page 84

PDF indexes of Opinions
Each PDF contains internal links which open the individual Opinions.





Web page indexes of Opinions
These contain individual summaries and links to the individual Opinions