Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Transparency Trumps Technology: Reconciling Open Meeting Laws with Modern Technology

Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Transparency Trumps Technology: Reconciling Open Meeting Laws with Modern Technology

Article excerpt

TABLE OF CONTENTS  INTRODUCTION I. BACKGROUND     A. Open Meeting Law Definitions     B. Goals of Sunshine Laws         1. Transparency         2. Public Participation         3. Efficiency     C. Modern Technology II. EMBRACING TECHNOLOGY     A. Providing Information and Soliciting Feedback     B. Remote Participation III. AVOIDING TECHNOLOGY     A. Interactive Online Forums         1. Transparency         2. Efficiency         3. Public Participation     B. Group E-mails and E-mail Forwards         1. Transparency         2. Public Participation         3. Efficiency     C. Responses to Counterarguments IV. COMPETING GOALS: BALANCING TRANSPARENCY WITH     PUBLIC PARTICIPATION AND EFFICIENCY     A. Necessary Sacrifices         1. Public Participation         2. Efficiency     B. Valuable Gains CONCLUSION 


As technological advances revolutionize communication patterns in the private and public sectors, government actors must consider their reactions carefully. Public representatives may take advantage of modern technology to improve communications with constituents and to operate more efficiently. (1) However, this progress must be made with an eye to complying with certain statutory restrictions placed on public bodies.

open meeting laws require that certain governmental bodies discuss and decide matters of public interest at planned, advertised meetings in full view of the public. (2) Most open meeting statutes, however, have not been updated for many years and thus fail to instruct public bodies on how to square their provisions with modern technology. (3) As a result, many government actors struggle to comply with open meeting statutes when attempting to use available technology to benefit themselves and their constituents. (4)

Legal scholars have noted the difficulties inherent in applying the restrictive provisions of open meeting laws to advances in technology. (5) Some argue that the benefits to be gained from public bodies' utilization of technology, particularly interactive online forums and group e-mails, outweigh potential harms. (6) These scholars conclude that, if these technologies do not comply with existing laws, lawmakers must amend open meeting statutes to allow for their use. (7) This Note contributes to existing legal scholarship by providing a concrete proposal for public bodies' use and avoidance of available technologies while preserving the primary goal of open meeting laws: transparency.

This Note will argue that, in order to comply with the spirit and the letter of open meeting laws, public bodies should limit use of modern technology to: (1) providing information and soliciting public feedback through noninteractive websites, and (2) enabling remote participation of public body members at meetings. This Note will then contend that public bodies should not utilize interactive online forums or group e-mails. Although these technologies may offer certain obvious benefits, this Note argues that: (1) they do not comply with current open meeting law requirements, and (2) legislatures should not alter open meeting laws to allow for their use. (8) It concludes that although more permissive statutes might lead to an increase in civic participation and government efficiency, these potential gains must be sacrificed in order to preserve transparency, the primary purpose of open meeting laws. (9)

Part I explains the circumstances under which open meeting law requirements apply. It also considers the goals legislatures hope to accomplish by enacting these laws and introduces the new technologies that must be squared with unclear statutory requirements. (10) Part II proposes two ways public bodies can and should utilize modern technology to further the goals of open meeting laws without risking noncompliance. Part III then argues that interactive online forums and group e-mail usage are bound to conflict with legal requirements and that legislatures should not alter public meeting laws to allow for their use. …

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