While the Open Meeting Act does not universally apply to homeowners associations nationwide, it is still worth understanding what this law entails. In doing so, HOA boards can conduct more effective and collaborative meetings.
What Is the Open Meeting Act?
The Open Meeting Act requires that all homeowners association meetings, including annual and board meetings, must be open to all members. Because this is not a federal law, it does not apply to all HOAs in the United States. However, several states have their version of the Open Meeting Act.
One notable example is California, which provides rather extensive requirements. Found in Civil Code § 4900-4955, California’s Open Meetings Law dives into notice requirements, emergency board meetings, and open forums, among others. Another example is Texas. Under Texas Property Code § 209.0051, all regular and special board meetings must be open to all owners.
Even if state law does not mandate it, holding open board meetings is a good idea. Open meetings allow owners to give their comments and feel acknowledged. They also promote transparency regarding the board’s decision-making process and the association’s finances.
Establishing an HOA Meeting Open Forum
In California, the Open Meeting Act requires associations to allow any member to speak at board meetings, except at executive sessions. Civil Code § 4925(b) specifically addresses this, adding that boards can impose a reasonable time limit for the member comment period. It is not allowed for an HOA to enact unreasonable rules that would essentially prevent members from addressing the board.
That said, associations can impose reasonable rules or guidelines. Associations are encouraged to create guidelines to facilitate a smooth and organized open forum. Here are some pointers on what guidelines your HOA can implement.
1. When to Hold an Open Forum
The law does not dictate at which point the open forum should take place during the meeting. Some boards hold it at the very beginning of the meeting, while others place it at the end.
Placing the open forum at the start of the meeting allows boards to hear owners’ comments on the agenda items. This may or may not influence their decision during the actual discussion. But, owners might also bring up issues that don’t appear on the agenda, which may derail the entire meeting. It really depends on the individual association and what works for them.
2. Imposing a Time Limit
As with the placement of the open forum in the agenda, there is no quantifiable time limit imposed by the law. Boards are required to provide a “reasonable” time limit for comments. Many associations, though, usually give 1 to 2 minutes per speaker. While a time limit is permitted, boards can’t limit the number of issues speakers can bring up.
3. Prohibiting Certain Topics
The Open Meeting Act allows boards to place reasonable restrictions on specific topics for discussion. For instance, the board might prohibit comments about personnel issues, confidential matters, or any concerns on which the board has no authority to act. Generally, it is best to refuse any topic divulging private or privileged information.
4. Prohibiting Disruptive Behavior
It is common practice to prohibit disruptive behavior or harmful comments from members during the open forum. This means no one should interrupt the speaker while they are speaking, board members included.
Additionally, members must not use threatening, defamatory, abusive, derogatory, or offensive language. The open forum is not an opportunity for personal attacks either. Should a speaker resort to any of these, the board may have the power to remove the offender from the meeting, though it depends on what state laws and the HOA’s governing documents permit.
Responding to Member Comments or Questions
During the open forum, residents can provide feedback or raise concerns to the board. But, the board is not required to respond. In California, state law may even limit the board’s capacity to answer member questions at the open forum.
According to Civil Code § 4930(b), boards can make brief responses or ask questions for clarification. It is dangerous to answer owners’ questions in length because the board might end up making promises it can’t keep, especially if it’s a topic that doesn’t appear on the agenda. The best way to handle these concerns is to table the discussion for the next meeting or deal with them privately if the matter calls for it.
Open forums can’t be tricky. Some homeowners may challenge the board’s decisions or bring up issues that strike a chord with the board. They may even criticize the board members. When this happens, the board should keep calm and deal with it. Board members are there to serve the association, and criticisms are simply a natural part of the job. It helps to approach each issue with an open mind, as owners can make good points, too.
Does the Open Meeting Act Apply to Executive Sessions?
Executive sessions are meetings of the board that are open to only some owners. The committee typically holds an executive session before or after the open board meeting. The board discusses private, confidential, and sensitive matters during this session. These include personnel issues, ongoing litigation, and delinquent accounts.
Due to the nature of the topics, boards are not required to invite owners to attend the executive sessions. It is typically within the board’s discretion whether or not to allow the HOA manager to participate in the meeting.
The General Advice
The Open Meeting Act came to fruition to allow for more transparent board meetings. It will enable homeowners to be more aware of community matters and involved in association affairs. Even if your HOA is not subject to a similar law, it is still within the community’s best interest to have open board meetings.
Understanding the law — or even your governing documents — can be challenging. Elite Management Services can make it easier. Call us today at (855) 238-8488 or contact us online to request a free proposal!
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