Volume 6, Number 27 - September 28, 2006
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
Meetings to be public
Editor’s note: The Examiner has noted an increasing tendency toward secrecy on behalf of certain agencies, from local boards to state agencies and federal bureaus. This unsettling trend is contrary to state and federal laws calling for public business to be conducted in full public view. This multi-part series will lay out the laws providing for this “government in sunshine” as well as outline some of the obstacles currently encountered in the quest for public information.
Wyoming statutes contain two important open government laws: the Wyoming Public Records Act (16-4-201) and the law governing meetings of governmental agencies (16-4-401).
Starting with the meetings law, the statute declares that agencies in the state – be it boards, commissions or committees, of the state, county, municipality or other political subdivision – exist in order to conduct public business and that business is to be conducted openly, with certain exceptions.
The law provides for meetings to be open to the public “at all times” except executive sessions, which are specifically prescribed for certain topics. A member of the public is not required as a condition of attendance at any meeting to register his name, to supply information, to complete a questionnaire or fulfill any other condition precedent to his attendance, although a person seeking recognition at the meeting may be required to give name and affiliation.
The importance of the meeting is not to be understated. Boards are to conduct their business at these meetings, not outside them, according to statute.
“No action of a governing body of an agency shall be taken except during a public meeting following notice of the meeting in accordance with this act,” the law stated. “Action taken at a meeting not in conformity with this act is null and void and not merely voidable.”
Action is defined to include not just from votes based on a motion, but collective decisions, commitments or promises to make a positive or negative decision.
Boards are generally required to hold regular meetings, but can call for special meetings as well. Special meetings may be called by the presiding officer by giving notice of the meeting to each member of the governing body and to each newspaper of general circulation, radio or television station requesting the notice. No other business is to be transacted at these special meetings other than the specific items listed on the special meeting notice.
Emergency meetings can be called “on matters of serious immediate concern to take temporary action.” Reasonable effort must be made to offer public notice of an emergency meeting, but any and all action taken at an emergency meeting is of a temporary nature and, in order to become permanent, must be reconsidered and acted upon at an open public meeting within 48 hours.
As expected, emergency meetings are rare. The Sublette County Commission once held an emergency meeting to authorize county assistance in sandbagging the Daniel area during flood-stage water.
But with some local boards, executive sessions have become common. The law allows such sessions only under limited circumstances:
• With officers of the law, on matters posing a threat to the security of public or private property, or a threat to the public’s right of access;
• To consider the appointment, employment, right to practice or dismissal of a public officer, professional person or employee, or to hear complaints or charges brought against an employee, professional person or officer, unless the employee, professional person or officer requests a public hearing. The governing body may exclude from any public or private hearing during the examination of a witness, any or all other witnesses in the matter being investigated. Following the hearing or executive session, the governing body may deliberate on its decision in executive sessions;
• On matters concerning litigation to which the governing body is a party or proposed litigation to which the governing body may be a party;
• On matters of national security;
• When the agency is a licensing agency while preparing, administering or grading examinations;
• When considering and acting upon the determination of the term, parole or release of an individual from a correctional or penal institution;
• To consider the selection of a site or the purchase of real estate when publicity regarding the consideration would cause a likelihood of an increase in price;
• To consider acceptance of gifts, donations and bequests which the donor has requested in writing be kept confidential;
• To consider or receive any information classified as confidential by law;
• To consider accepting or tendering offers concerning wages, salaries, benefits and terms of employment during all negotiations;
• To consider suspensions, expulsions or other disciplinary action in connection with any student as provided by law.
Minutes are to be maintained of any executive session. According to the law, “Except for those parts of minutes of an executive session reflecting a members’ objection to the executive session as being in violation of this act, minutes and proceedings of executive sessions shall be confidential and produced only in response to a valid court order.”
While public officials have a responsibility to conduct their meetings in a professional manner, the public has a responsibility as well.
“If any public meeting is willfully disrupted by a person or group of persons so as to render the orderly conduct of the meeting unfeasible, and order cannot be restored by the removal of the person or persons who are willfully interrupting the meeting, the governing body of an agency may order the removal of the person or group from the meeting room and continue in session, or may recess the meeting and reconvene at another location,” according to the state law.
Violations of Wyoming’s meetings law are punishable. According to the law, “Any member or members of an agency who knowingly and willfully takes an action in violation of or conspires to take an action in violation of this act shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Board members have a responsibility to speak up when they believe board action is outside the law. According to statute, “Any member of the governing body of an agency who attends or remains at a meeting where an action is taken knowing that the action is in violation of this act shall be guilty of a misdemeanor unless minutes were taken during the meeting and the parts thereof recording the member’s objections are made public or at the next regular public meeting the member objects to the meeting where the violation occurred and asks that the objection be recorded in the minutes.”
Misdemeanor violations of the law are punishable by a fine of up to $750.
To learn about Wyoming’s Public Records Act, read Part Two of this series in next week’s Examiner.
See The Archives for past articles.
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