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In an unpublished opinion, Center for Justice v. Arlington School District, No. 627263-1-I (Sep. 4, 2012), a Washington Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s conclusion that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.
 

New Jersey League of Municipalities a Public Agency Subject to Open Public Records Act

The New Jersey League of Municipalities (League) is a non-profit, unincorporated association representing over 500 of New Jersey’s municipalities. The League was authorized by the New Jersey Legislature in 1915. One of its functions is serving as a lobbying organization for the state’s municipalities. Its employees are eligible for membership in the New Jersey Public Employee’s Retirement System.

In response to a request for records, the League claimed that it was not a public agency subject to the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA). The trial court and Court of Appeals agreed with the League. On August 23, 2011, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously reversed the lower courts and found that the League was a public agency. Fair Share Housing Center, Inc. v. New Jersey State League of Municipalities, No. 066228. The court distinguished the term “public body” under that state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), from the term “public agency,” which it found far more encompassing under the OPRA. In contrast to Washington State court decisions, the fact that the New Jersey League was found not to engage in “governmental functions” was not relevant to the inquiry. See the discussion of West v. Washington State Association of Counties (2011) and Telford v. Thurston County Board of Commissioners (1999) in the posting of June 2, 2011: “Washington Association of County Officials Subject to Open Public Meetings Act.” One of the factors considered by Washington courts in determining whether an entity is an “agency” or the “functional equivalent” of an agency and subject to the Washington Public Disclosure Laws is whether the entity performs a governmental function.
 

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.
 

"Confidential" But Is It?

In this era of WikiLeaks’ disclosure of secret State Department and military cables, the question of what is and what is not “confidential” government information has become more opaque.

Conflicting viewpoints on the issue of what is “confidential” also arise in the local government context, as reported in the February 28, 2011 edition of the Everett Herald: “Legality of disclosing executive session information not an easy call.”

The Everett Herald reported on the censure of an Everett School Board member for disclosing information from a closed, executive session about a potential building purchase. But, the newspaper noted there is a real dispute between the school board and the censured school board member about whether the information she discussed potential acquisition of an office building for multiple educational uses was already public knowledge.

The Everett Herald article points to a continuing dilemma for public officials in Washington, especially for an elected official who finds conflict between the official’s interest in wide ranging conversations with constituents, and the official’s duty to the office to which elected. Washington law expressly prohibits a public official from “disclosing confidential information gained by reason of the officer’s position.” RCW 42.23.070(4).

For elected board members, confidential information is most frequently obtained in a part of a meeting when in executive session under one of the reasons listed in RCW 42.30.110. Listed as the second of those reasons is for an executive session to “consider the selection of a site or the acquisition of real estate by lease or purchase when public knowledge regarding such consideration would cause a likelihood of increased price;” – the specific provision that is the subject the Everett School Board censure.

One can well understand that if a government’s interest in purchasing a specific building or parcel of land and its ultimate price limit is known, that this information may well cause the government and its constituents to pay more that it otherwise would. Thus the justification for an executive session in the first place and the parallel prohibition against disclosing confidential information all make sense. But what is and what is not confidential is often disputed, as illustrated by the Everett School Board controversy. This also highlights the common law and statutory requirements that the elected official’s first responsibility is to the agency, notwithstanding the interest in public communications. See, RCW 42.23. 070(3) (prohibiting a municipal officer from holding another position that would “require or induce” the official to disclose confidential information acquired by reason of the public office). Best practice for any governing board facing this dilemma is to explicitly identify in the executive session itself what it considers to be the particular elements that are and should remain confidential.
 

Rutgers University Board Must Hold Executive Sessions Only After Open Session

Rutgers is the State University of New Jersey and subject to that state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). A recent decision of the intermediate appellate court of New Jersey found that Rutgers had violated the New Jersey OPMA in the course of various executive session proceedings.

Like many public bodies subject to an OPMA, the Rutgers Board of Governors would conduct executive sessions at various times, including shortly after the commencement of a meeting. Applying the unique provisions of the New Jersey OPMA, the court concluded that the

“variable time for the resumption of the open session, in combination with the brief 5-minute open session at the beginning of the meeting, creates such uncertainty about when the public session will actually resume as to impermissibility erode the reliability of the times specified in the public notices of the Board’s meeting.”

As a result, the court ordered that the Rutgers Board of Governors must complete its open session before commencing any closed session. This rule is not likely to apply in Washington where the Washington State OPMA specifically requires that before entering an executive session, the agency must identify the period of time for the executive session. RCW 42.30.110 (2). This is to provide the public with knowledge of when the public will regain access to the public portion of the agency’s meeting. Accordingly, the public will know what time the public session is to resume, and any public session that began before that announced time would be in violation of Washington’s OPMA.

Further, the Rutgers court held that the University Board must do more than list the exceptions that would allow a closed session (e.g., attorney-client meeting). The court recognized that the Board must only disclose “the general nature of the subject to be discussed.” But, simply listing the exception without describing the subject matter was inadequate (e.g., when discussing legal dispute over a contract, the Board should announce the contract that is subject to discussion). The Rutgers ruling is not dissimilar to the recent Washington Supreme Court decision under the Public Records Act that requires an identification of claimed exempt documents not only by the basis for the exception to disclosure, but also an explanation of why the exception applies. See September 17, 2010 posting on this site, “Washington Supreme Court issues comprehensive public records act decision.”

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.
 

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.

Attorney General Opinion Request Relating to Council Committees and OPMA

The Office of Attorney General has been asked to render an opinion regarding the application of the Washington Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) to a particular issue involving the meetings of city council committees. The questions to the Attorney General relate to the impact of non-committee councilmembers attendance at a committee meeting.

To view a copy of the notice of the pending opinion request, click HERE.