Friday, December 27, 2013

FOIA Friday: meeting agendas, board packets, and meeting minutes

One of my favorite ways to avoid filing a FOIA request is to ask for the thick sets of documents that are typically prepared before and after a public meeting.

A few days before a meeting, city staff are busy preparing the materials that members of the board or commission are to review to prepare them for that meeting. You too can see these documents, which are available for the asking. Sometimes they are posted to the city web site or to Legistar; other times, they are not posted, but if you request a copy from the clerk the query will be forwarded to the right person who can get you the same materials that board members have in time for the meeting.

What would you want all of this for? Well, for one thing, it comes back quickly: you can typically get board packets by request within a day or two of them being prepared and before the board meets. This is in contrast to FOIA queries that can take weeks to process.  In addition, the board packets often contain details that can be useful for making future FOIA requests or informal requests to board members or to staff. There's a window of time where you the interested citizen have room to assert yourself as a participant in the process, and where your close reading of board packets can give you the information you need to try to influence a decision.

Once the meeting has happened, there's a wait for official minutes to be approved. Typically, though not always, these are approved at the next meeting of the board. If you're eager to get those minutes before they are approved, you can request the draft minutes of the board, and under the Michigan Open Meetings Act these draft minutes must be ready within eight business days.

Asking for meeting minutes and board packets is perhaps the gentlest way of being an interested participant in the municipal process. Generally, these are things that should already be prepared and ready, and in many cases the documents you are looking for are designed to be published widely. I've never been charged a fee for meeting information and the records never come back redacted.

(Illustration: minutes from the January 3, 1916 Ann Arbor City Council regarding the maintenance of sidewalks. From the Council Minutes archives at the Ann Arbor District Library.)

Edward Vielmetti writes the FOIA Friday column for Damn Arbor and is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

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