Can our group host a closed meeting?

Questions answered about executive sessions.

Many questions about Parliamentary Procedure are directed to Michigan State University (MSU) Extension on a regular basis. One recent question was: “Can our nonprofit group meet in a closed meeting?”

First, it’s important to understand that in Michigan the term “closed” meeting typically applies to government groups required to follow Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, MCL 125.3101 et seq. (OMA). The OMA was made into law to keep government meetings “open to the public” thereby protecting the rights of citizens to witness the deliberations of government officials when making decisions on the public’s behalf. Government groups can only meet in “closed session,” that is, without the public in attendance, if the reasons for such a meeting meet strict guidelines described in the OMA. The public, however, is notified of a closed meeting and they can not be held in secret. No decisions can be made by a public body in closed session. In contrast, when non-governmental groups meet in private without any public or members present it is referred to as an “executive session.” These meetings may be held in secret without notice and decisions can be made during an executive session. Whether or not a nonprofit group can meet in executive session is a question to be answered by referring to the organization’s governing documents such as state statute under which they are authorized or the bylaws of the organization. Meeting in executive session is an option for most nonprofit groups who have adopted the most recent version of Roberts Rules of Order Newly Revised as their parliamentary authority.

Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th ed. explains that an executive session in general parliamentary usage has come to mean any meeting of a deliberative assembly, or a portion of a meeting, at which the proceedings are secret. The origins dating back to presidential nominations to appointive offices and treaties behind closed doors in the United States Senate.

A deliberative assembly is normally entitled to determine whether nonmembers may attend or be excluded from its meetings (even when not in executive session). A meeting entered into executive session may be done so by rule, established custom, or by a majority vote. Votes can be taken in an executive session, but the proceedings must be kept secret. This is perhaps the most defining difference between a government closed meetings where only discussion may occur.

Going into an executive session can occur at any time even during current debate on a motion. Thinking about reasons why the group would go into executive session should be considered in advance. Some reasons might include a concern about repercussions from nonmembers, or nonmembers in the room that may inhibit the group from being able to speak openly, or when the group needs to have open, free discussion and not worry about others knowing what was said.

The Michigan State University Extension Government and Public Policy team offers training for elected and appointed officials for improved effectiveness in several areas, including various public policy issues and effects of government programs, regulation, incentives, strategies and more. By working together with local elected and appointed officials, and interested citizens, MSU Extension is able to provide education on critical local and state issues. The Michigan State University Extension Government and Public Policy team also offers professional training in Parliamentary Procedure. To contact an expert in your area, visit MSU Extension’s expert search system or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464). 

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