When and how can board members use email to communicate with each other? Can they discuss and gain consensus on an item by email?
The guidelines for use of email as a method of communication between board members are derived from the public meetings laws that apply to all forms of communication. When email was invented nothing changed the rules regarding conversations by telephone or any other means, EXCEPT there is now a record of the conversation (even if you deleted it, ‘they’ can find it) and it is easier to get caught.
Here is the basic rule we start with:
A meeting occurs when a quorum of the board is present to gather information or decide or deliberate on any public matter. All meetings of public governing bodies shall be conducted in public unless specifically exempted. No quorum of a governing body may meet in private to decide or deliberate toward a decision. ORS 192.6110, 192.620, 192.630
The Attorney General has said: (p. 124-125 The AG’s Public Records and Meetings Manual January 2011)
c. Electronic Communication
“The Public Meetings Law expressly recognizes meetings may be conducted by telephonic conference calls or ‘other electronic communication.’ Such meetings are subject to the Public Meetings Law ORS 192.670(1). Notice and opportunity for public access must be provided when meetings are conducted by electronic means. For nonexecutive session meeting held by telephone or other electronic means of communication the public must be provided at least one place where its members may ‘listen’ to the meeting by speakers or other devices. ORS 192.670(2) …communications between and among a quorum of members of a governing body convening on electronically linked personal computers are subject to the Public Meetings Law if the communications constitute a decision or deliberation toward a decision for which a quorum is required, or the gathering of information on which to deliberate.“
What all this finally means is board members may not discuss any school district business (not just voting or discussing or coming to consensus. Take note the AG includes ‘gathering of information’ in the statement above) by email between a quorum or more of them UNLESS they post it as a meeting and make it possible for the public to attend. Other than holding the email conversation real time in a chat room it is not clear how this could be possible. Gaining consensus on an issue if the issue is district business is NOT allowed except at a posted public meeting.
Some topics are considered ‘housekeeping’ and have been considered OK to discuss because they do not involve district business. Topics might include determining whether board members could meet on a particular date or at a particular time or if they wanted a sandwich and what kind. It does not include editing a document or letter to the editor, deciding whether to provide specific direction to the superintendent even though it doesn’t require a vote, or asking for board members opinions on a topic in advance just to see by ‘straw poll’ whether it is worth having a vote or not. All of those discussions of district business have to be held at a publicly posted meeting.