Most state laws and/or homeowners association governing documents require all regular and special meetings of the association’s board of directors that are not conducted in executive session to be “open” to the association members. Frequently, the concept of an “open meeting” of directors is misunderstood and interpreted in a manner that allows non-director association members to participate in discussion amongst the board members and to be heard in connection with votes. Such involvement by homeowners in the agenda items being considered by the association’s directors is improper and should not be allowed by the president who is in charge of the meeting. The applicable laws and provisions in an association’s governing documents that call for open meetings are for the purpose of allowing association members to observe the board conducting its business. With the exception of speaking during the “open forum” session of a board meeting, the members in attendance should only speak during the period that the board is conducting its business concerning the agenda items when the president has invited comments from the members in attendance on a particular agenda item.
Additional provisions in state statutes and/or an association’s governing documents typically provide for setting aside a reasonable amount of time at an open board meeting for an “open forum,” or period during which the homeowners in attendance can address the association’s board of directors. There is generally no set time during the course of a board meeting when the open forum session is conducted, but it is most frequently scheduled for the beginning of the meeting so that members who wish to be heard can address the board and then not stay for the entire duration of the board meeting. Nevertheless, some associations prefer to conduct the open forum at the end of the meeting after the directors have concluded business on the other agenda items.
The amount of time that a member is allotted to address the board is left to the discretion of the directors. The preferred practice is to establish a specific amount of time to allow for the entire open forum session (i.e. 15 or 20 minutes) and then have the president to inquire as to the number of members who wish to address the board. Each member that wants to speak is then allocated the same amount of time.
The topics that members are permitted to address during the open forum are broad but they should not include confidential and/or private matters that are inappropriate for discussion in front of all those in attendance and matters that are reserved for executive session meetings. Additionally, the use of defamatory, indecent, abusive or threatening language is inappropriate and should not be tolerated. Members who engage in such inappropriate conduct during the open forum should be ejected from the meeting without the use of physical force. If a member refuses to leave after being requested to do so, an available security guard or a call to the local police seeking assistance in escorting the person out of the meeting would be appropriate. If that is not possible, it may be necessary to adjourn the meeting in order to avoid a situation that could escalate and get out of control.
It is a good practice for associations to have established written rules which describe the manner in which the open forum sessions of board meetings is conducted. Those rules should be distributed to the homeowners along with the other association policies and rules and should also be made available to the members at the open session board meetings.
The open forum is not a time to examine or debate complex issues and matters discussed in open forum should not be the subject of a vote by the directors. If an issue that is addressed in open forum requires additional discussion and possible votes by the directors, it should be placed on an agenda for a future meeting that is properly noticed. Open forums at board meetings present opportunities for homeowners to be heard and for the association’s directors to learn of important issues that may need to be addressed at future board meetings and to get input, ideas, and suggestions from homeowners. If used properly, open forums are valuable parts of association open board meetings and a great tool for establishing rapport with homeowners, getting owners involved in the association’s activities, and learning about members who might have valuable information that the association could benefit from.