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Copy editor’s tip: learn about open meeting laws

Politics is usually a subject most romance writers avoid, for good reason. Their main story focus is on the hero and heroine’s relationship, and political topics can be a turnoff to the reading audience, pushing away the agreeable glow that comes with romance stories and inserting disagreement instead.FreeSpeech

Nonetheless, many stories do contain peripheral mentions of political happenings–not big campaigns on the national level or partisan references, but, rather, the ordinary goings-on of municipal life. School board meetings, town meetings, town council meetings — any public board, appointed or elected, can be included in a story, sometimes with a subplot hanging on the outcome of such meetings.

For writers including these events in their stories, here’s a tip: Don’t assume these meetings can be run like an informal get-together. Rules govern them. Some in your reading audience are sure to know them, maybe from experience. Be careful not to fall into the Gilmore Girls trap. That sweet and funny TV series regularly featured town meeting scenes (find some on YouTube), and they were often freewheeling, quirky and odd with an ad hoc nature to them. While freewheeling, quirky and odd can be used to describe many municipal meetings, some basicĀ guidelines apply to them, and you should familiarize yourself with these rules before including public meetings in your story, especially if a plot point hinges on a public board’s decision. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Public meetings almost always, if not always, have to be “warned.” That is, there has to be a special effort made to alert citizens to the upcoming meeting, its date, time and place, and what will be on the agenda. Public board meetings can’t be called quickly, at the whim of the board’s members, and without adequate notice. Just do an internet search of “open meeting laws” for the state in which your story is set. These laws often provide the amount of time that must be given from “warning” to meeting, for example (as little as 24 hours, or as much as 72 or longer) and how this time can be shortened under special circumstances. Warnings take the form of website notices, press releases, and even paid advertisements in newspapers. So, if you have a character suddenly finding out that he missed a”special meeting” of the town board, that character’s indignation should be aimed at himself for not paying attention to the board warnings.

Open meeting laws usually specify that meetings are, well, open. That means the public board does its business in public, not in special closed sessions. Votes on budget issues and other important matters are almost always done openly so that the people know how their elected representatives are voting–even if it’s just a voice vote. There are exceptions where closed sessions can be held, but these usually involve individual personnel matters. So, if one of your characters discovers a board has voted on something important and no one was told…well, that’s most likely illegal. Or, again, the character just didn’t stay informed.

Agendas are often set in advance as part of the warning. Don’t have your character show up at a meeting, introducing a topic to be discussed, especially one that requires a vote, without some reference to procedure, no matter how slight. Open meeting laws require the public know what’s going on so those who have an interest or stake in a particular issue can be prepared to offer their opinions fairly. Your hero can’t come to a town meeting and persuade the board members to vote for money to go to a project if his idea hadn’t been included on the agenda to begin with. He can speak, sure–most public board meetings have opportunities for citizens to address the board (in the Vermont city in which I used to live, this was called “going outside the rail” because a railing separated the aldermen from the public seating). But chances are if action is required, another meeting or more will be necessary before that action is approved — to give any opponents a chance to weigh in. Oh, and on the subject of who can speak at a public meeting, don’t assume a mayor can waltz in and talk. They have to get their items on the agenda, too.

Town and city boards have different names for their members. As I mentioned above, the Vermont city board where I used to live was called the Board of Aldermen. In some towns, board members are called “commissioners.” Sometimes, they’re called “selectmen.” Sometimes “councilmen” or “council members.” If you decide to use a specific term, find out what it is for that locale.

Most boards meet on a regular schedule, but New England “town meetings” are annual events in March. The free-for-all atmosphere of the Gilmores’ Stars Hollow meetings probably most aptly applies to the annual March town meetings in states like Vermont where local citizens gather to discuss and vote on important issues. Even so, meeting rules still apply, which leads me to my final tip:

Robert’s Rules of Order is a good source. If you must include details of any public meeting in your story because of important plot points, take a peek at Robert’s Rules of Order for how public meetings are usually conducted. If, say, your hero does manage to get his item on the agenda for a vote, a board member–alderman, selectman, commissioner, etc.–will probably have to make a motion to introduce it, that motion will have to be seconded, and then discussion ensues until the vote is called (usually by another motion).

This might seem like a lot of research for, perhaps, a scant reference to a public meeting in your novel. But, take heart: learning about these issues will mean you’re a better-informed citizen, a worthy goal for writer and nonwriter alike!

Libby Sternberg is a novelist and freelance copy editor.

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