Open meetings

Jun 23, 2013 By Steven R. Peck

Solid waste board ought to have kept the doors open to the public

Rarely do members of a public board say, or even think, "Hey, let's have a secret meeting illegally."

That's just not how it happens, which is an important disclaimer to establish before commenting on the Fremont County Solid Waste Disposal District Board meeting a few days ago, which many who saw it believed included an improper session behind closed doors.

Reporter Eric Blom has already gone into the details of the meeting itself in his coverage of the board. That coverage included an opinion from Wyoming's acknowledged expert in media law that what the solid waste board did was improper -- that is to say, illegal.

Virtually every public entity in Wyoming which has access to taxpayer money is subject to the Wyoming Open Meetings Law. It was put on the books many years ago to establish the ways in which public boards must operate in the public interest. A key part of the law concerns under what circumstances the public board may conduct a meeting in secret.

The euphemism for "secret" in this context is "executive session." That is a non-descriptive term for "secret meeting." The law requires that the meetings of public boards be conducted in public.

There are only a few reasons permissible in calling for an executive session. One is "potential litigation." Potential is an unfortunate word in this case, because potential can cover anything and everything. With terminology so vague, public boards routinely site potential litigation as the reason for meeting out of sight of the public.

The problem in this case was that when the solid waste board emerged from its executive session, the board apparently had done more with the doors closed than discuss potential litigation. To all observers, it seemed clear that board members had discussed several policy moves, decided what they wanted the outcome of those discussions to be, and had arranged for that outcome before reconvening in public. Swiftly, and without discussion, a succession of motions seconds and votes took place, and the meeting was adjourned.

The Wyoming Open Meetings law stipulates clearly that discussion of actionable policies requiring a public vote must take place before the public.

Violations of the law often occur almost by accident, and boards which step outside the lines tend to dismiss objections as petty troublemaking by combative or interfering news reporters. Perhaps there are reporters here and there who pick nits in the actions of public boards for less than perfect reasons, but in truth the open meetings law exists to protect the boards just as much as to please the news reporters.

If a public board takes an action in a manner that is impermissible under the open meetings law, then that action can be rendered moot. That's far from a hypothetical scenario. The very thing happened not so long ago when the Fremont County Museums Board opted in executive session to fire a museum director. The board didn't want to area its dirty laundry in a public session, so it shut the doors, citing the confidentiality of personnel discussions as permitted under the law. What wasn't permitted under the law was for the board to conduct the closed-door ballot -- moving and seconding to terminate the director, discussing, and then voting. Those things must be done in public view.

As followers of county government recall, the eventual outcome of that breach of law was a mega mess for the museums board and Fremont County.

A lawsuit was filed, a reinstatement order was issued, damages were sought, the entire board was disbanded by the county commissioners, and the museum situation in Lander was unstable for years afterward.

People often view laws as a means of punishment. In fact, more often they are the means of protection for those who obey them. The damage done in that violation of the law wasn't so much to the newspapers or the few spectators in the room, but rather to the museum system, the museum's board, and county government in general.

Don't expect a lawsuit over this solid waste boards action, but a word to the wise: Have that discussion that led to the behind the scenes decision-making regarding the Wind River Indian Reservation trash transfer stations again at your next meeting. This time, do it in public. This time, follow the stipulations of the law. This time, do it the right way. It will help to avoid trouble later.

Given the jumble of both the challenges and problems confronting the solid waste district in recent years, the last thing it needs is a stink about action taken illegally.

We have extra copies of the open meetings law in the newspaper office if this board or any other would like to have one -- not so much for our benefit, but for theirs.

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