Arkansas FOIA: Soliciting Individual Board Approval Constitutes a Meeting, Providing Background Information Does Not

In contrast to Washington law, the open-meetings provision of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does not define “meetings” that are subject to the Act’s requirements. Here, the Arkansas Supreme Court concludes that submitting a draft ordinance and a memorandum in support of that ordinance does not constitute a meeting subject to the FOIA’s requirements.

In McCutchen v. City of Fort Smith, City Administrator Kelly circulated a draft ordinance expanding his hiring-firing authority, a memorandum supporting the ordinance, and other documents to five of seven members of the Fort Smith Board of Directors in advance of a Board study session. Plaintiff McCutchen sued the City, alleging that Kelly violated the open-meetings provision of the FOIA by engaging in a series of private one-on-one meetings with Board members.

Although some Board members expressed support (and others opposition) to the proposed ordinance, the Arkansas Supreme Court held that Kelly did not violate the FOIA because he did not solicit specific responses from Board members. Moreover, McCutchen failed to produce evidence that the proposed ordinance was discussed or debated prior to the study session or that Board members exchanged any correspondence about the memorandum.

The Court distinguished the prior case Harris v. City of Fort Smith, where a city administrator violated the FOIA by holding one-on-one meetings with Board members in order to obtain approval to acquire property at auction. The administrator sought secret approval, and later ratification by Board resolution, in order to avoid making public the city’s maximum bid prior to the auction. There, the administrator violated the FOIA because the individual contacts to seek Board approval constituted an informal meeting subject to the FOIA’s open-meetings provision. City Administrator Kelly did not seek similar pre-approval, here. 

Court Agrees -- A Special Meeting is Not a Regular Meeting

In an unpublished opinion, Center for Justice v. Arlington School District, No. 627263-1-I (Sep. 4, 2012), a Washington Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s conclusion that a school district’s “special meetings” were not “regular meetings” because they did not occur in accordance with a schedule declared by statute or rule. The school district regularly held bi-monthly “business meetings,” which were properly noticed as “regular meetings” under the OPMA. It often held what it called “study sessions” just prior to the regularly scheduled business meetings, following the OPMA notice requirements for “special meetings.” The Center for Justice (CFJ) argued that, because of their frequency, the study sessions should have been noticed as regular meetings. Noting that the OPMA did not define “regular meetings” for agencies other than those of the state, the court interpreted the statute as anticipating two types of meetings: those with dates fixed by rule or law (regular meetings), and all others (special and emergency meetings). Because the dates of the study sessions were not fixed by rule or law, they were not regular meetings and the District’s use of the “special meeting” notice provisions was proper.

The District had conceded violations of the OPMA relating to 21 executive sessions it had commenced without first opening a meeting. The trial court granted judgment to CFJ and awarded its attorney fees, reduced by a “degree of success” it calculated by dividing 21 sessions by 144 total alleged violations, or a 14.6% success rate. The appellate court concluded that because CFJ had alleged multiple violations for each session, the trial court had committed an arithmetic error—essentially dividing the number of rotten apples by the total number of allegedly rotten apple seeds—to produce a meaningless “percentage.” The court remanded for a re-calculation of the fee award.

The appellate court also awarded attorney fees to CFJ on appeal for establishing that the trial court had erred in its fee calculation. Although the District prevailed on the remainder of CFJ’s claims, because CFJ’s appeal was not frivolous, the District received no fee award.
 

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin Urges County Commissioners and Sheriff to Meet in Public

In an editorial on December 9, 2011, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin commented as follows:

Dec. 09 -- The budget discussion between Sheriff John Turner and the three county commissioners got heated this week when it veered off course.

Instead of focusing on the specifics of the budget, the meeting became a debate over whether commissioners Gregg Loney, Greg Tompkins and Perry Dozier should meet individually with Turner and his command staff to discuss and develop strategic plans for the Sheriff's Office.

It is simply not the job of the county commissioners to help develop strategic plans for the Sheriff's Office. That is the sole responsibility of the county sheriff, who is directly elected by the people of Walla Walla County.

The Board of County Commissioners is a legislative body. The commissioners are elected to oversee the overall operation of the county, which includes establishing the budget.

The three commissioners, however, are not the sheriff's direct boss. The people are the sheriff's boss.

The expectation is that the sheriff oversees the Sheriff's Office and establishes polices and develops strategic plans. The sheriff makes a budget request to the commissioners, who then allocate funding based on those plans as well as other factors such as the needs of other county offices and how much money is available.

Holding private meetings on a regular basis between individual commissioners and the sheriff is unnecessary.

That's the case whether it is the sheriff or any of the other independently elected county officials. The auditor does-n't develop strategy with the commissioners on how to run an election nor does the coroner develop with commis-sioners policies regarding autopsies.

The three commissioners said they would be willing to discuss various issues with Turner in a public meeting that is recorded -- just like all commission meetings.

"That way we all hear the same thing and they are recorded for the public to listen to, and then I would be willing to do that. And I've told the sheriff that, too," Tompkins said.

Exactly. The people's business should always be done in public.

Turner, however, has concerns about meeting in public.

"You know that plan doesn't work because when it comes to tactics and how we deploy people (and) when we talk about the tremendous civil and safety liability issues to the office, that's not for the public," he said.

It was suggested by a commissioner that when sensitive topics come up the commissioners and sheriff could meet behind closed doors in an executive session with their attorney.

Absolutely not. We do not believe that would be legal under the state's Open Public Meetings Act. The law nar-rowly defines the subjects for which meetings can be closed, things such as personnel matters and pending litigation. Strategic plans for law enforcement do not apply.

Developing strategic plans is best done by the sheriff and his command staff. And after those plans are developed the commissioners -- in public -- provide oversight through the budget process.
___

Visit Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (Walla Walla, Wash.) at union-bulletin.com.

Everett School Board Plans a Meeting About Meetings

On November 25, 2011, Sharon Salyer of The Herald reported on Everett School Board planning to hold a forum early next year to discuss open government. The following is a reprint of the article in full:

Controversy has swirled around the Everett School Board all year over openness and transparency.

The school board now plans to hold a forum early next year to have outside experts discuss issues such as the state Open Public Meetings Act and the steps involved in getting records from government agencies.

Ed Petersen, school board president, suggested during a meeting Tuesday night that the school district contact a nonpartisan group, such as the League of Women Voters. The group could help select the experts who would speak on the state's open-government laws.

The goal is to have the event in January or February, Petersen said. It would give the public an opportunity to talk about openness in government.

"The benefits we're looking for are a better informed community and information from those who attend to help us in our operations," he said.

The idea for the forum was first proposed in September, as the School Board was wracked with controversy following a scuffle among three members, Petersen, Kristie Dutton and Jessica Olson.

Olson has often been at odds with other board members since being elected in 2009. Fellow board members have censured her twice this year.

At the same meeting that the school board was considering Olson's second censure, planner Reid Shockey of Everett suggested the special public meeting, which would include a panel of experts discussing open government and the state Open Public Meetings Act.

In other business during Tuesday's School Board meeting, board members discussed whether to grant a request from Olson to see unredacted copies of legal invoices or bills since June from a Seattle law firm which advises the school district.

Board member Jeff Russell said he was concerned about Olson's request to view unredacted invoices because they contain private and confidential information about staff, students and families.

"We rightly place conditions upon the viewing, copying, reporting or moving of such records," he said.

Dutton asked for Olson to sign a document saying that she would not remove any of the documents or post them on social media sites or in other way violate the privacy rights of those involved in legal issues.

"We have had Director Olson's assurance before that she would not copy or take the invoices and she did exactly that," said board member Carol Andrews.

Olson asserted that the legal invoices are not confidential. "They're the public's documents," she said.

Student names are abbreviated or initials are used, she said. Her earlier review of the legal billings showed "there was not one piece of information ... required to be redacted."

"We're telling the public that the invoices belong to the district and not the public," she said. "Each one of us is duly elected by the citizens. We have the right to go in and look."

The School Board voted not to allow Olson to see the unredacted invoices. However, Andrews later suggested that the board allow all board members regular access to redacted attorney invoices.

The motion was made after Olson left the meeting after approximately three hours due to a scheduling conflict. That motion was approved unanimously for the four remaining board members.

 Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.
 

Washington Association of County Officials Subject to Open Public Meetings Act

In 1959, the Washington legislature recognized the Washington Association of County Officials (WACO) as a statewide “coordinating agency” of county officials. In Washington State, many counties have independently elected assessors, auditors, clerks, coroners, sheriffs, treasurers and prosecuting attorneys. These positions are separate from the separately elected county commissioners or county councilmembers and executive. WACO is also distinct from the Washington State Association of Counties, Washington (WSAC), Public Ports Association and similar organizations. In 2008, a claim was brought against WACO claiming that it was subject to the Washington Open Public Meetings Act or “OPMA.” OPMA had been adopted in 1971 as part of a package of open government provisions, including campaign finance and public record disclosure.

The Court of Appeals in 1999 determined that both WACO and WSAC were subject to the public records portions of the 1971 initiative. Telford v. Thurston County Board of Commissioners, 95 Wn. App. 149, 974 P.2d 886 (1999). Questions remain, however, regarding the application of that law to the Public Records Act and OPMA. See Attorney General Opinion 2002 No. 2, finding the Telford analysis must be applied on a factual basis to determine the specific application of the components of the Public Disclosure Act to any particular entity, such as WSAC. The Telford court considered the following four factors to determine the application of the campaign finance provisions to an entity: 1) the entity’s governmental function; 2) the entity’s government funding; 3) governmental control over the entity; and, 4) the entity’s origin.

On June 1, 2011, the Court of Appeals in West v. WSAC, Court of Appeals No. 39366-2, applied those same factors to determine that WACO was also subject to OPMA. The court recognized that the OPMA portion of the Public Disclosure Act does not define “state agency.” This differs from the campaign finance and public records provisions of the public disclosure laws. “Nevertheless, because we construe the OPMA liberally to reach its intended purpose, we hold that for purposes of the OPMA, a “state agency” may be an association or organization created by or pursuant to statute which serves a statewide public function.” The court relied on the legislature’s formal recognition of WACO in 1959 – at WACO’s own request – in support of its determination that WACO was a public agency subject to the OPMA. Courts in other jurisdictions, however, have reached different results. See our March 31, 2011 blog posting.
 

Can Disruption at a Public Meeting Lead to a Moveable Feast? Yes, But Washington's Open Public Meetings Act Requires that the New Location be Decided by Vote

The Tacoma News Tribune reports that the Puyallup School Board may have run afoul of Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act (“OPM”) when it adjourned a disruptive meeting to a new location without disclosing where that was.

The Puyallup School Board faced a rowdy crowd at its May 9 meeting – a vociferous display of support for a local high school Principal who had submitted his resignation. When the time came to vote on whether to accept or reject the Principal’s resignation, shouting and chants from the crowd reportedly disrupted all order at the meeting. The Board President announced an adjournment of the meeting to another location.

But, the Board appears to have overlooked specific requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act. RCW 42.30.050 allows a public body to adjourn a disruptive meeting and reconvene at a new location. However, that new location must be “selected by majority vote of the members.” Thus, not only must there be a vote to move to a new location, but the new location must be publically approved by a majority of the Board. Public notice of the new location is vital and necessary, because the same statute also provides that “Representatives of the press or other news media, except those participating in the disturbance, shall be allowed to attend any session held pursuant to this section.”

Adherence to the procedural requirements of the OPM are critical, as RCW 42.30.060 mandates that actions taken in violation of the OPM are null and void.

State Senate Passes Public Agency Website Bill, Raising Serious Concerns

The Washington State Senate has passed Substitute Senate Bill 5553, which requires that most public agencies owning and maintaining a website post certain information, including agendas, legislation and minutes.

SSB 5553 adds a new section to chapter 42.30 RCW, the Open Public Meetings Act. The text of SSB 5553 is available here.

While the goal of SSB 5553 is admirable, many public agencies have expressed serious concerns, including uncertainty about the finality of legislation, inability to amend legislation at regular meetings and the specter of personal liability for members of governing boards.

The State House of Representatives Committee on State Government and Tribal Affairs has scheduled a public hearing on SSB 5553 for 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, March 24.

For more information about the provisions of SSB 5553 and some of the concerns raised, click here.
 

Meetings of Committees Attended by Other Members May Become a Meeting of the Full City Council (If Quorum) and Require Advance Notice as a Full Council Meeting

The Washington Attorney General concluded that committee meetings of a city council may require additional notice when enough other council members attend the committee meeting to make a quorum of the full council. Interpreting the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), the Attorney General Opinion No. 9 (AGO 2010 No. 9, November 30, 2010), the Attorney General concluded:

The Open Public Meetings Act requires that notice be properly given of a meeting of the governing body. This requirement is not satisfied by notice given for a meeting of a standing committee of a city council as a governing body, where a quorum of members of the city council attend the meeting and take action as defined in the act, such that a meeting of the city council as a governing body takes place.

A reference to the Attorney General Opinion follows: http://www.atg.wa.gov/AGOOpinions/Opinion.aspx?section=archive&id=26916

Particularly important to note is that discussion by a committee may be an “action” under the OPMA definitions. As a result, a better practice for an agency that uses committees (whose meetings are subject to the Open Public Meetings Act) is to include as part of meeting notice (in adopted code, resolution or otherwise) that the committee meeting is also a meeting of the legislative body (e.g., city council). An additional report on the Opinion is at http://www.pnwlocalnews.com/whidbey/wnt/news/111228679.html.
 

City of Tough Love: The full Council must hear testimony

A divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court has told the Philadelphia City Council that under Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law, the City Council – as a whole – must allow public comment on pending legislation. [Alekseev v. City Council of City of Philadelphia, 2010 WL 4643724] The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a long-standing policy in Philadelphia where Council committees, instead of the Council as a whole, scheduled and received public testimony on pending legislation. The Court found that “simply because committees fall within the definition of ‘agency’ does not mean that they may be substituted for a particular body (a board or council) accorded a specific responsibility (entertaining public commentary) by the Legislature under the Sunshine Act.”

The three dissenters on the seven-member Court found that not only that there was no doubt the General Assembly was aware of Philadelphia’s long-standing, preexisting practice of receiving public comment in special meetings conducted by Council committees, and sought to preserve it, but that testimony at the committee level was more effective. “In this case, and consistently with the practice in Philadelphia for over half a century, appellants were allowed to provide input to the committee in advance of the Council meeting at which the bill was passed, so it appears they actually had a more realistic opportunity to participate in shaping the legislation, rather than speaking at the very meeting where the vote was taken.”

In contrast, Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act explicitly references the fact that testimony may be taken at committee meetings. RCW 42.30.020(2) defines “Governing body” to include “the multimember board, commission, committee, council, or other policy or rule-making body of a public agency or any committee thereof when the committee acts on behalf of the governing body, conducts hearings, or takes testimony or public comment.” (Emphasis added.)

In fact, a committee or other subsidiary body created by the full council or commission in Washington is required to observe the Open Public Meetings Act and allow testimony to be given in public. In 2001, for example, the City of Lakewood’s adult cabaret ordinance was held invalid because a Planning Advisory Board created by the City Council took testimony about the proposed ordinance in closed door sessions. Clark v. City of Lakewood, 259 F.3d 996, (9th Cir. 2001).

There is, however, always a balance between allowing for public testimony and the need for efficiency and decorum. See, Steve DiJulio’s article: “Balancing the Council’s Right to Manage Meetings With Expectations of Citizens.”
 

Don't Go Off the Deep End by Forgetting the OPMA

The attached news report from Port Angeles illustrates the problems of forgetting that joint agencies created by a combination of local governments are generally subject to the Open Public Meetings Act, to the same extent as the founding agencies themselves. Port Angeles pool director choice to be a 'do-over; Open Meetings Act is factor

In this case the board of a Pool District acted to hire a new director in a closed session after interviews. The Pool District was created by the City of Port Angeles and Clallam County The District Board apparently overlooked the Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 RCW; “OPMA”) when it did so. The solution was to dry off, step back from the edge and dive anew into the hiring process – this time in public.

This circumstance serves as a needed reminder that new, combination agencies created by public agencies are also governed by the Open Public Meetings Act. While the definition section of the OPMA (RCW 42.30.020) does not specifically include an agency created by two or more public agencies, it does include language that covers “[a]ny subagency of a public agency which is created by or pursuant to a statute, ordinance or other legislative acts. . . .” RCW 42.30.020(c).

Washington courts have broadly interpreted both the OPMA and the Public Records Act (Chapter 42.56 RCW), as the legislation for both acts directs. An example of the breadth of this interpretation is Telford v. Thurston County Board of Commissioners, 95. Wn. App. 149, 974 P.2d 886 (1999). In Telford, the Court of Appeals held that the Washington Association of Counties and the Washington Association of County Officials were both public agencies for purposes of the Campaign Finance part of the Public Records Act. This case gave rise to what has come to be know as the “Telford test” for determining what is a public agency: (1) whether the entity performs a public function; (2) the level of government funding; (3) the extent of government involvement or regulation; and (4) whether the entity was created by government.

Here, the Pool District meets each of those four parts of the “Telford test.” [See, for example, Clarke v. Tri-Cities Animal Care & Control Shelter, 144 Wn. App. 185, 181 P.3d 881 (2008), applying the “Telford test, to hold that the Animal Shelter – even though a privately run corporation – was a public agency for purposes of the Public Records Act.] The OPMA therefore applies to the Pool District, and a public reconsideration of the District’s hiring decision was the right thing to do.

Washington AG Calls for Administrative Board to Manage Public Records Claims

The Washington Attorney General has called for legislation to create an administrative board to manage disputes over Public Record Act claims. The legislation is not likely to be considered until 2011. In an op-ed piece in Crosscut, AG Rob McKenna noted during "Sunshine Week" that this would save substantial costs when compared with the current process of litigation.

Bellevue City Council Members Allege Open Public Meetings Act Violations

Publicola is reporting that members of the Bellevue City Council are accusing the majority of violating the Open Public Meetings Act by negotiating the text of a letter to Sound Transit without holding an open public meeting.  The council members allege that the letter regarding the future location of a light rail line through Bellevue was drafted via phone and email.  The Open Public Meetings Act, Chapter 42.30 RCW, requires that all meetings of the governing body of a public agency shall be open and public.  A meeting occurs when the majority of the governing body or any committee acting for the governing body transact any official business of the public agency, including but not limited to receipt of public testimony, deliberations, discussions, considerations, reviews, evaluations, and final actions.  A court may determine that a meeting has occurred if a majority transact business via a "serial" or "rolling" meeting in which phone calls or email are forwarded among the group until a consensus is reached. 

Web 2.0 Risks: A 'Tweet' OPMA Violation?

A 'Tweet' OPMA violation?

Public perception counts, technical compliance may not be sufficient. Web 2.0 creates risks and challenges.

"'Tweets' bring possible illegal meeting to light. 
Twitter Post reveal a gathering of Mukilteo
City Council members after their official meeting.
"

Headlines like this recent headline in the Everett Herald hurt public trust, even when no laws are broken.  A post on the Open Records Blog (scroll down to the third post) demonstrates how at least some members of the public will react.

To ensure compliance with the OPMA, the Public Records Act and the retention laws, elected officials and public employees must make sure they understand all of their legal requirements before they use Web 2.0 sites. 

Here are some additional resources on the use of Web 2.0 sites by Elected officials and public employees:

City Council Handbook Wiki

Gov Social Media Wiki

Open Government in the News: Washington State

Unredacted: "May a council member attend a public meeting by telephone?"

Here is the lasted post on Tim Ford's Unredacted Blog "May a council member attend a public meeting by telephone?"

Tim's conclusion: 

Therefore, I conclude that a governing body may "attend" a meeting by teleconference so long as there is compliance with the other requirements of the OPMA.  Attendance does not require the contemporaneous physical presence of the members of the governing body.  While it may be good policy to require such physical attendance, the OPMA must be construed broadly to fulfill its purpose.

I agree with Mr. Ford's conclusion and recommend that you read the full article. 

Seattle Times: "No more closed-door Seattle City Council budget briefings"

Update (April 22, 2009) -- Happy Earth Day

In this editorial, Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr responds to an earlier editorial about his role in the "closed door" meeting controversy.  The two editorials serve to highlight an often overlooked point -- the public's perception of a government's compliance with open government laws can be more important than the government's strict compliance with those laws.  One of the primary purposes of open government laws like the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act is to build public trust.  If the public thinks the government is trying to keep something secret that should be public, it builds distrust.

So were the proposed closed-door meetings legal?  The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that there is no violation of the Open Public Meetings Act when less than a majority of the governing body meet.  See, e.g., In re Recall of Beasley, 128 Wn.2d 419, 427, 908 P.2d 878 (1996).  It's worth noting that the provision in the Attorney General's Open Government Internet Manual cited by the Og-Blog in its post on this controversy is off the mark, at least to the extent that it suggests that it is an open question about whether the OPMA applies when less than a majority of the government body is involved.  The current version of the Internet Manual fails to recognize the Supreme Court's unambiguous decision in Beasley, even though that case was decided ten years after the legislative change cited in the Internet Manual.

There is one possible exception, however, that has not been addressed by the Supreme Court.  When a majority seeks to make decisions through a series of meetings, none of which include a majority but collectively do involve a majority.  This may amount to an illegal "serial meeting."  An appellate court, in holding that an email exchange amounted to an illegal meeting, has recognized this concept, but no appellate court has squarely addressed the issue. See Wood v. Battleground School Dist., 107 Wn. App. 550, 27 P.3d 1208 (2001). Wood also recognizes that the passive receipt of information by a majority does not violate the law.  For more on the Wood case, see this article.

But whether the meetings were legal is now a moot question.  The Mayor and City Council opted to build trust by agreeing to open its doors, even if the meetings would have been legal.  

Original Post

As of Friday afternoon, April 10, 2009, the Seattle City Council and Mayor have decided not to hold closed-door budget meetings, according to this Seattle Times article.

This is a change from the City's earlier decision to hold close-door meetings, which was criticized by the Seattle Times in this article and editorial as possibly violating the Open Public Meetings Act.