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What Are Open Meeting Laws And Why Should You Care?

10 March 2009  

What are Open Meeting Laws, and should they matter to everyone? Who has to follow them? Are volunteers exempt? Do they apply to School Boards? Bicycle Committees?

lizhill

So, what are Open Meeting Laws, and why should you care?

Attorney Elizabeth Hill, with the State Ombudsman's Office will be coming to Prescott on Wednesday, March 11 to speak on that very subject. The seminar, which is free of charge and open to the public, will take place at the Yavapai Title Training facility on the corner of Sheldon and Gurley Streets.

Most people know that Open Meeting Laws mean that public officials must decide issues as a corporate body in public. But, did you know that Open Meeting Laws cover much more than that?

To help others learn about Open Meeting Laws and what is permitted and what is not permitted, Prescott eNews is pleased to sponsor this Open Meeting Law Seminar and Panel Discussion.

Why Sponsor an Open Meeting Law Seminar?

Why are we offering this seminar and opening it to the public? Because, frankly, concerns have been raised that some local elected officials and governmental bodies have not been following Open Meeting Laws properly. As a matter of fact, on more than one occasion, reporters for Prescott eNews have noticed apparent lapses during public meetings.

Now, that's not meant to be a critical statement. But, Open Meeting Laws can be complicated and confusing. And, they change a lot - why even more changes were voted in by the state legislature just last September. So, it's easy to make a misstep from time to time.

If a violation of Open Meeting Law occurs, one recourse is to file a complaint with the State Attorney General's Office, which in turn starts an investigation. But, that would be time-consuming and distracting, to say nothing of using up legal resources better spent elsewhere.

In light of that, the Prescott eNews Editorial Board chose to sponsor this Open Meeting Law Seminar, opting for education over interminable investigations.

About Open Meeting Laws

Public officials are required to work under Open Meeting Laws. These laws are important to ensure transparency in government dealings and enable the public to examine, scrutinize and evaluate what their representatives are doing.

The document entitled, "Open Meeting Law 101" from the State of Arizona's Ombudsman's Office, gives several reasons for Open Meeting Laws:

1. To protect the public.

a. To avoid decisionmaking in secret.

b. To promote accountability by encouraging public officials to act responsively and responsibly.

2. To protect public officials.

a. To avoid being excluded (notice).

b. To prepare and avoid being blindsided (agenda).

c. To accurately memorialize what happened (minutes).

3. Maintain Integrity of government.

4. Better informed citizenry.

5. Build trust between government and citizenry.

But the interpretation of Open Meeting Laws is not always agreed upon. That's why the Arizona State Legislature set up the Ombudsman's office, explaining, "The Arizona Ombudsman-Citizens' Aide is an independent agency of the Arizona Legislature that was established to make government more responsive to Arizona citizens. It is the office that Arizona citizens can turn to when they feel they have been treated unfairly by a state administrator, agency, department, board or commission."

Attorney Hill is from the Ombudsmen's Office.

Some Committees Must Abide By Open Meeting Laws, But Not All

Which committees must abide by Open Meeting Laws? Do all governmental committees need to follow Open Meeting Laws all the time? Does it only apply to elected officials? What about volunteers? What about staff?

The Mayor's Advisory Committee on Prescott 2050 Visioning brings these sorts of questions to mind, and is a perfect example of the kinds of legitimate questions that can arise.

During Prescott Mayor Jack Wilson's first year in office, he established a "Mayor's Advisory Committee on Prescott 2050 Visioning". It was structured with a steering committee of five members, and fifteen sub-committees, which worked their way through their self-appointed tasks. On February 22, 2009, the committees held an Open House at Prescott High School, presenting their visions and ideas.

But, how did these committees come up with ideas and process information? That answer is not publicly known - because when asked for the sub-committee agendas or the time and location of where they were meeting, Mayor Wilson responded, "Meeting agendas and minutes are posted on the official City of Prescott website for appointed committees. The five members of the 2050 Steering Committee were appointed by me. The fifteen study groups were self organized volunteer groups and were not appointed by me or anyone else."

As a matter of fact, it was obvious from the start that keeping these sub-committee meetings open to the press and/or public was not part of the 2050 Visioning plan. During that initial meeting, when a question was asked by a member of the audience about Open Meeting Laws, Mayor Wilson assured him that they would try to subscribe to them completely, but then Dr. William Arnold, the chair of the 2050 Visioning Committee added, "The way I see it is that the committee that gets together once a month, and that will be an Open Meeting. The study groups, it'll be almost impossible to get to someone's house, and figure out what they're talking about, because all they're doing is studying it. No action in my estimation would violate the Open Meeting Law, but I'm not a lawyer."

Are Mayor Wilson and Dr. Arnold correct? Were the sub-committees exempt from having to follow Open Meeting Laws? Wilson and Arnold say no. But others might interpret the laws differently.

Here is how the Open Meeting Law legislation reads:

A meeting is a gathering, in person or through technological devices of a quorum of a public body at which they discuss, propose or take legal action, including deliberations. A.R.S. § 38431(4). This includes telephone and email communications.

Who must comply with Open Meeting Law?

Public bodies. "Public body" means the legislature, all boards and commissions of this state or political subdivisions, all multimember governing bodies of departments, agencies, institutions and instrumentalities of the state or political subdivisions, including without limitation all corporations and other instrumentalities whose boards of directors are appointed or elected by the state or political subdivision. Public body includes all quasijudicial bodies and all standing, special or advisory committees or subcommittees of, or appointed by, the public body. A.R.S. §38431(6).

"Advisory committee" or "subcommittee" means any entity, however designated, that is officially established, on motion and order of a public body or by the presiding officer of the public body, and whose members have been appointed for the specific purpose of making a recommendation concerning a decision to be made or considered or a course of conduct to be taken or considered by the public body. A.R.S. § 38431(1).

How Much Do You Know?

How much do you know about Open Meeting Laws? Here are some real and hypothetical situations. Do you know which ones violate Open Meeting Laws? (Hint: They are NOT all violations.)

  • A city council has on the agenda a non-specific summary of curent or recent events, and discusses a non-political event that occurred the week before, without it being on the agenda
  • A school district has an in-district committee made up of school administrators that makes decisions regarding a school, but the public is only told about the decision after it is implemented. There is one representative from the school board on the committee
  • Steve Blair, a local radio show host, stands up to make a comment regarding sewers during a Prescott City Council meeting, and before he can say more two words, he is interrupted by Mayor Jack Wilson, who asks, "Why do you call me Cactus Jack?"
  • During the call to the public, one citizen is given 5 minutes to speak, and another is allowed to talk for 7.5 minutes
  • One citizen is allowed to speak two times, and another is told that they can only approach the podium once
  • A group of citizens who wish to speak during a public meeting are told they must have a spokesman represent the entire group
  • A citizen makes a comment at a public meeting, and the moderator responds with a disparaging reply
  • Out of a council of seven members, three members decide together in advance how they are going to vote
  • A member does not speak to other members in advance of the public discussion, but does send emails out to the other members
  • A member of the public requests public information, and waits 8 weeks to receive it - the document is one and a half pages long

Got Questions?

Got questions of your own? You are invited to the Open Meeting Law Seminar on Wednesday, from 11-4. Attorney Hill will present the seminar, and then there will be a panel discussion afterwards.

Where: Yavapai Title Training Center on the corner of Gurley and Sheldon. (Enter at the door in the back.)

How Much: Free

What You Get: Handouts, Certificates of Completion, Lots of Information

Bring: Pen and notepad, and a sack lunch - maybe even a snack!

Beverages have been donated by the Marlin for Mayor Campaign

Note: Please RSVP, so that we can make sure there are enough handouts.

Tomorrow: What do your elected leaders and candidates think of the Open Meeting Laws?

Lynne LaMaster

Lynne LaMaster is the Founder and Editor of the eNewsAZ Network of websites. She asks a lot of questions! In her spare time, she loves photography, cooking and hanging out with her family.

Website: https://www.facebook.com/eNewsAZ/