The Real Truth about Who Gets to See Meeting Minutes

In the world of parliamentary procedure, there’s a common scenario: A member asks to see copies of past meeting minutes, and the group’s secretary says, “Over my dead body.”

We all know how the request tends to come about in the first place—Mr. Make-Life-Difficult wants to see what happened at every meeting for the last decade so that he can make his “really important” point at the next meeting. Or Ms. Archives-Lover wants to write an exhaustive history of the organization for this year’s anniversary celebration.

To be fair, sometimes requests to see meeting minutes are made by a group of members on one side of an issue simply because they want to see what actions the organization has taken in the past on that topic.

Suffice it to say, though, requests to see past meeting minutes are a classic good mood killer. They make the secretary suspicious, annoyed, or both. And then comes the question: Does Mr. Make-Life-Difficult really get to see the minutes from 1983?

Simple Rule 1: A member of a group has a right to examine the minutes of that group.

Plain and simple, Robert’s Rules says that the secretary of an organization has to (1) keep minutes and (2) make them available to members that ask for them. Yes, this means that if Ms. Archives-Lover wants copies of the minutes from every meeting for the last 26 years, she gets them.

But here’s an important point to remember – she only gets to see minutes for groups of which she is a member.  So, if she’s a member of the group at large, she can see those minutes. And if she’s also a member of the board, she can see board meeting minutes.* But if she’s not a member of the Events Planning Committee, she’s out of luck for those particular records.

So you ask, where does this leave the secretary? Buried under piles of minutes from the ’80s? No.

Simple Rule 2: A member has a right to examine minutes at a “reasonable time and place.”

Here’s how this works: Don’t abuse the secretary. Yes, Robert’s Rules says, “Let members examine minutes.” But in the same breath it says you have “the right to examine these reports . . .  at a reasonable time and place.” And oh, by the way, “Don’t annoy the secretary.”

Yep. It actually has a bit that says that. Let’s just call it the “Secretary Support Clause.” If you’re a secretary, here’s a sentence from Robert’s Rules that you just might want to put on a plaque: The “privilege [of examining minutes] must not be abused to the annoyance of the secretary.”

So what’s reasonable? You tell me. Better yet, ask an average, educated person with a little distance from your situation. Most folks have a pretty good gauge on what’s reasonable.

Here’s a couple rules of thumb: Demanding that your request be answered in less than 24 hours is probably not reasonable. And totally ignoring a request in hopes that the member will just move on is also probably not super reasonable. Of course, there’s a world of happy mediums between these extremes.

My advice is to (1) always communicate promptly, honestly, and kindly, and (2) keep the conversation substantive, not personal. Sure, Mr. Make-Life-Difficult may not really need those 1983 minutes as badly as he thinks he does, but odds are that letting him examine them probably won’t do much harm. Who knows, you may learn something you didn’t know that you can pass along to Ms. Archives-Lover. Win-win!

* A non-member of the board can see board minutes if the board votes to allow that or if the membership votes that the board must produce and read its minutes to the entire membership.