Volume 6, Number 29 - October 12, 2006
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RHCD passes opens records test: fails on open meetings
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 the public business to be conducted in full public view. This is the third installation of a multi-part series that lays out the laws providing for “government in sunshine” as well as outlining some of the obstacles currently encountered in the quest for public information.
The first two parts of this series have explained Wyoming’s open meetings and public records laws. This week, one local government was put to the test. The Sublette County Rural Health Care District Board has been subject to repeated criticism for conducting public business behind closed doors in executive session, but with a new board and a better understanding of the board’s responsibilities to take action only in open session, the public has higher expectations for the board in its compliance with the open meetings law.
At its meeting Monday night, the board was reminded that Dr. David Burnett of Wyoming Range Medical wants to speak with the board about the issue of his private clinic having to compete with a government-sponsored clinic that is duplicating services in the Marbleton area.
Board Chairman Bill Budd asked if the entire board wanted to meet with Burnett, or assign a committee to do that, also suggesting that a weekend session would work better for Burnett, although a weekday evening isn’t out of the question. Director Randy Johnson suggested the board could just get together and have that discussion at any time, so long as no action was taken.
The Examiner reminded the board that under state statute, all meetings of the governing body of an agency are public meetings. Under the law, a meeting is any assembly of at least a quorum of the board that is called together “for the purpose of discussion, deliberation, presentation of information or taking action regarding public business.” Special meetings of a governing body must be preceded by notice to the public via media outlets requesting such notice.
RHCD Director Randy Johnson said that he’d conferred with the board’s attorney and had been told that such a session would be fine.
“We researched this with our attorney specifically because of the concerns that we had that are identical to yours,” Johnson said. “It’s his opinion that this kind of a meeting would be okay.”
The Examiner insisted that such a meeting involving a quorum of board members must take place as a public meeting, with prior notice, if the intent was to discuss public business, noting that the public has great interest in the business competition issue.
Budd asked, “You think that I couldn’t have dinner at Jud Faler’s house, with he and I and Walt Bousman?”
The Examiner replied that if the intent of the session was to discuss public business, the gathering would be a public meeting.
Budd suggested that two board members could meet with Burnett, then another two at a different session. The Examiner pointed out that while that would be legal, it would also say a great deal about the board’s intent to not operate in full public view.
The Examiner emphasized that the test is whether the gathering of board members is intended for the purpose of discussing or deliberating public business. If it’s public business, it must be in a public meeting.
Johnson suggested that the Examiner raised a valid point that should be taken back to the board’s attorney. Board member Dave Racich suggested that rather than Johnson or a board member consulting with the attorney, the entire board should participate in that discussion. The board agreed to ask its attorney to address the board, and to host that discussion before any session with Burnett takes place.
So how does the RHCD handle public records requests? As part of the research for this series, the Examiner telephoned Randy Johnson, RHCD director, to request that the Examiner be granted access to the financial documents pertaining to the RHCD purchase of the business assets of Dr. Judy Boyle’s medical practice. Johnson made the requested records available immediately.
The Examiner reviewed the appraisal of Boyle’s business, which was prepared by Killmer and Associates of Casper, a certified public accountant and valuation firm.
Johnson said that the board paid Boyle $300,000 for her business, while Killmer estimated the investment value of the board purchasing 100 percent of the interest in the business to be $470,000.
According to the appraisal, the operating profit for the business was $173,000 during the first nine months of 2005 and $216,000 in 2004. The business lost money from 2001-2003, according to the appraisal figures.
Patient fees generated by Boyle’s business were about $400,000 in 2001; $732,000 in 2002; $886,000 in 2003; and $1.27 million in 2004. The numbers for 2005 were similar to 2004.
The appraisal documentation included a signature page where those reviewing Boyle’s financial business information were to promise to keep the information confidential. Johnson explained that the confidentiality agreement was invoked to keep board members from repeating the information until after the deal was finalized. The only person to sign the confidentiality agreement was one RHCD board member who is no longer on the board. The Examiner was not asked to keep any information confidential and, in fact, Johnson said the financial information is indeed public information. Johnson said the Examiner’s request to review the financial information was the first time the district had received such a request from the public.
For an example of a state agency that fails the openness test, read part four of this series in next week’s Examiner.
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