Open Meetings: Shining more sunshine on government

Legislature
Image by deltaMike via Flickr

Amidst all the talk about what people can do to be more involved in civic affairs, there’s one place that is often forgotten: meetings. Most government business is required to take place or be discussed in what is known as an “open meeting.”  The idea is that if discussions take place in the public, then public officials will be less likely to do things that are not in the public’s interest.

Today’s local paper, the Salt Lake Tribune, carried an interesting op-ed from a BYU communications professor–Joel Campbell–that gives some excellent suggestions for how to make the most of public meetings, and how to make sure they stay public. It’s all about keeping government officials honest, and it’s an important part of make our republic work. While these suggestions are geared towards a Utah audience, I think it would be safe to say that they could apply anywhere in the country:

1. Diffuse the open-meetings bomb. If a discussion is scheduled for a closed meeting looks like it might violate the law, make a phone call before the meeting and try to persuade public officials to discuss the agenda item in question in the open. For advice, Utahns may call a Freedom of Information hot line (operated by the Salt Lake law firm of Parr, Brown, Gee and Loveless) at 801-532-7840.

2. “Retreats” should raise a red flag. Just because a public body wants to meet at a mountain resort for a retreat doesn’t mean the open-meetings law doesn’t apply. If a quorum, or majority, of the body will be present, the meeting should have a 24-hour notice and accommodation should be made for the public to attend or listen in.

3. Be careful of attorney-client privilege. Some public bodies try to get around the open-meetings act by claiming attorney-client privilege. Question the use of such ploys. There is no specific attorney-client exemption in Utah’s public-meeting law.

4. Challenge “stealth agendas.” If the agenda simply lists “minutes,” “old business” and “new business,” begin challenging the public body for more information. In Utah, closing a meeting for a “personnel” matter is often misunderstood. The law includes “discussion of the character, professional competence or physical or mental health of an individual.” That has been misconstrued, for example, to talk about staffing a department. Such deployment of staff discussions are clearly not covered by this definition. Utah law also demands “reasonable specificity” on the agenda; residents should hold their elected officials to that.

5. Question boilerplate closures. Some agencies, as a matter of course, include a closed “executive session” on their agenda as a matter of practice whether they really need it or not. Such a practice may encourage more closed meetings and violates the spirit of Utah’s open-meetings law.

6. Beware of “electronic meetings.” Utah law allows meetings to be conducted over the telephone or via video or audio conference. However, there is a requirement that the public can listen or watch. Also be aware of the emerging trend to conduct public business via e-mail. Make sure the public bodies aren’t engaged in e-mail conversations about public business.

7. Make sure there’s a vote for “executive sessions.” In Utah, a two-thirds majority of the public body must vote to go into a closed session.

8. Beware of “work meetings” or “committee of the whole” meetings. In most cases, these are meetings to discuss matters informally and line up votes. These are still public meetings no matter what they are called.

9. Get the meeting documents. Ask for the same information that members of the board or council receive. These are public documents and can help residents better understand the issues. Also, minutes of the meeting are public record and should be available within a “reasonable time” after the meeting. By law, a recording of the meeting should be available for review within 72 hours of the meeting.

10. Beware of executive sessions for nonspecific times and locations. Some boards have attempted to approve closed meetings for a non-specific time and location in the future. The Utah Board of Regents previously engaged in this practice when interviewing candidates for university president jobs. Thankfully, the Attorney General’s Office told the board they were violating the law with such ploys.

For Utah laws on public meetings, see the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act, found in the Utah Code Annotated 52-4-101 through 52-4-305 and available online here.  Accoding to the Salt Lake Tribune, “Joel Campbell is a former reporter and current associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University. His reporting does not necessarily reflect the views of BYU. He writes on First Amendment and open-government issues for The Tribune. He can be reached at foiguy@gmail.com.

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