How should members of a public body handle the approval of meeting minutes if they were absent?
What should members of a public body do when it comes time to vote to approve minutes of a meeting that they were not present at?
In a perfect world, members of a public body would have perfect attendance at meetings, but that is not the case. Michigan State University (MSU) Extension recognizes that not being present for all or part of a previous meeting can happen for a variety of reasons, such as removing oneself due to a conflict of interest, being a new member on the board or life getting in the way as it does with all things. A question that then comes up for the absent member is what to do at the next meeting when a motion is made to approve the meeting minutes.
Members often report feeling that since they were not present at the meeting, they lack the first-hand knowledge of the proceedings to approve the minutes. Those members may feel they need to either vote ‘no’ or abstain from the vote to approve the minutes. In truth, neither of these is the appropriate route when considering state statute and Roberts Rules of Order, the commonly used parliamentary procedure. “Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th edition (RONR),” by Henry Martyn Robert, explains that "it should be noted that a member’s absence from the meeting for which minutes are being approved does not prevent the member from participating in their correction or approval.”
Open Meetings Act on minutes
Michigan’s Open Meetings Act requires that all public bodies must keep minutes of their meetings. Those minutes are the record of the meetings showing things like date, time, and location of the meeting, member present and absent, and decisions made (MCL15.269(1)). The Open Meetings Act also states that “[t]he public body shall make any corrections in the minutes at the next meeting after the meeting to which the minutes refer” (MCL 15.269(1)).
In addition to the Open Meetings Act, other state statutes or local policies may have an impact on what meeting minutes look like for a particular body and who is responsible for them. Members of public bodies are encouraged to reference the applicable state laws and their local bylaws or rules of procedure for additional information.
What should an absent member do?
The Open Meetings Act is silent on the approval process for the minutes of public bodies, so what should a member of a public body do after an absence? In addition to statutes, members can look to their body’s adopted parliamentary procedure for guidance on the process of approving meeting minutes. For example, many communities have chosen to use “Roberts Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th edition” as their parliamentary authority. In the absence of guidance from statute or local policies and bylaws, the chosen parliamentary procedure will guide this process. Under RONR, during the meeting following the absence, members should fully participate in the discussion of the minutes and any corrections, even if they were absent.
As Ann Macfarlane explains in her article, “Approving minutes if you were absent,” voting to approve the minutes is not you affirming you were an eyewitness to the events, but rather your confidence in the secretary, the other members, and the process that produced the minutes. Members should not abstain from the process. In fact, you should participate in the discussion, any corrections, and the approval.
If a member was not present for a meeting, the immediate next steps after the missed meeting are very similar to what members who were present would do. The absent member should have still completed their preparation work for the meeting they missed (reading the meeting packet, reviewing any relevant documents, etc.) so they will still have an understanding of what was discussed. If a member truly has concerns with the minutes, they may make a motion to refer the minutes to committee or postpone approval until a certain time to allow for investigation or redrafting.
For members of an appointed body, such as a planning commission or zoning board of appeals (ZBA), the times when it is appropriate to abstain from a vote are limited. When someone takes on the role like that of a planning commission or ZBA member, it is with the expectation that individual will be an active participant in the deliberations and decisions of the body, as long as there is no conflict of interest. Members of elected bodies must also avoid conflicts of interest, but may have more ability to abstain during votes. This article contains more information on conflicts of interest, including how they may vary for different bodies.
Do meeting minutes even need to be voted on?
Assuming a body has adopted RONR (12th ed.) as their parliamentary authority, section 41 deals with the order of business at a meeting, including the approval of minutes (41:9-12). The process is as follows:
- The minutes are read, or it is announced that copies of proposed minutes have been distributed
- A formal motion to approve the minutes may be offered, but is not required
- The chair asks for any corrections to the minutes
- Corrections are proposed and are resolved via unanimous consent or if there are objections a motion to amend can be made and resolved
- Once all corrections, if there were any, are dealt with the chair states that the minutes are approved as read or approved as corrected
To quote directly from “Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th ed.” (41:11): “The minutes are thus approved without any formal vote, even if a motion for their approval has been made. The only proper way to object to the approval of the secretary’s draft of the minutes is to offer a correction to it.”
More resources on meeting minutes
State statutes, local charters, bylaws, and rules of procedure are a great source of information on how your local community has chosen to handle the record keeping process, member absences, and many other things. As this article explains, any specific rules or procedures in those bylaws and rules of procedure would take precedence over the rules established by the chosen parliamentary procedures, and state statutes would take precedence over local rules and policies. Additional resources on meeting minutes are provided below: