Thursday, December 09, 2010

More Than You Want to Know About Serial Meetings

Here is what the state Department of Justice has to say about serial meetings involving public agencies in California. The act referred to is the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act
“The Act expressly prohibits the use of direct communication, personal intermediaries, or technological devices that are employed by a majority of the members of the state body to develop a collective concurrence as to action to be taken on an item by the members of the state body outside of an open meeting. (§ 11122.5(b).)

“Typically, a serial meeting is a series of communications, each of which involves less than a quorum of the legislative body, but which taken as a whole involves a majority of the body’s members. For example, a chain of communications involving contact from member A to member B who then communicates with member C would constitute a serial meeting in the case of a five-person body. Similarly, when a person acts as the hub of a wheel (member A) and communicates individually with the various spokes (members B and C), a serial meeting has occurred. In addition, a serial meeting occurs when intermediaries for board members have a meeting to discuss issues. For example, when a representative of member A meets with representatives of members B and C to discuss an agenda item, the members have conducted a serial meeting through their representatives acting as intermediaries.
242 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 61 (1963); see also 32 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 240 (1958).

“In the Stockton Newspapers case, the court concluded that a series of individual telephone calls between the agency attorney and the members of the body constituted a meeting.3 In that case, the attorney individually polled the members of the body for their approval on a real estate transaction. The court concluded that even though the meeting was conducted in a serial fashion, it nevertheless was a meeting for the purposes of the Act.

“An executive officer may receive spontaneous input from board members on the agenda or on any other topic. But problems arise if there are systematic communications through which a quorum of the body acquires information or engages in debate, discussion, lobbying, or any other aspect of the deliberative process, either among themselves or between board members and the staff. Although there are no cases directly on point, if an executive officer receives the same question on substantive matters addressed in an upcoming agenda from a quorum of the body, this office recommends that a memorandum addressing these issues be provided to the body and the public so they will receive the same information.

“This office has opined that under the Brown Act (the counterpart to the Bagley-Keene Act which is applicable to local government bodies) that a majority of the board members of a local public agency may not e-mail each other to discuss current topics related to the body’s jurisdiction even if the e-mails are also sent to the secretary and chairperson of the agency, posted on the agency’s Internet website, and made available in printed form at the next public meeting of the board.4

“The prohibition applies only to communications employed by a quorum to develop a collective concurrence concerning action to be taken by the body. Conversations that advance or clarify a member’s understanding of an issue, or facilitate an agreement or compromise among members, or advance the ultimate resolution of an issue, are all examples of communications that contribute to the development of a concurrence as to action to be taken by the body.

“Accordingly, with respect to items that have been placed on an agenda or that are likely to be placed upon an agenda, members of state bodies should avoid serial communications of a substantive nature that involve a quorum of the body. In conclusion, serial meeting issues will arise most commonly in connection with rotating staff briefings, telephone calls or e-mail communications among a quorum of board members. In these situations, part of the deliberative process by which information is received and processed, mulled over and discussed, is occurring without participation of the public. Just remember, serial-meeting provisions basically mean that what the body can not do as a group it can not do through serial communications by a quorum of its members.”

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