It can be difficult for board members to conduct a meeting and speak candidly with the public or media representatives watching and listening. Board members may feel they must be overly responsive to those listening, and the result can be a meeting that seems more for the audience than for the library board. Some board members may be so intimidated by an audience that they don’t speak at all and all sides of the issues are not considered.
Public library board meetings are subject to the Open Meeting Law, Iowa Code, Chapter 21. Public libraries, like other tax-supported agencies, must operate in the best interest of the public. The Open Meeting Law, requiring that all meetings of government bodies be held in public, is designed to protect the public from secret dealings by public boards. Public notice of the date, time and place of board meetings, must be posted at least 24 hours before the meeting. Very simply, this statute is a protection against abuse of public power. At least one public library board in Iowa has been investigated in recent years and was found to have violated the Open Meeting Law. To be sure your board operates within the Open Meeting Law, read more details about it in Chapter10
Even though it may be challenging to conduct a meeting in public, attempting to circumvent the Open Meeting Law is illegal and unnecessary. Your board can function well in the open and within the law. Here are a few suggestions:
Keep in mind that you have been chosen to represent a large number of people. The people who show up at a board meeting usually represent a very small percentage of your constituents and should not have an undue influence on your actions.
Have a clear policy about regulating the activity of people who attend your board meetings. If you have a public forum section of the agenda, keep in mind it is a time for listening, not uncontrolled debate. Set a time limit for the open forum and explain the rules for those who want to speak. State in your policy that the board will listen, but will not respond during the meeting to those who speak during the open forum. If a response is needed, it should come at a later time when the board has had time to deliberate the issue, to seek more information, or to take recommendations from the director.
Understand that your board meeting is a meeting conducted in public, not a public meeting. In other words, the public, and possibly media representatives, are there to watch the board work, not to participate in the board meeting (except for the open forum above).