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Open meetings: The key to government transparency
Sunshine Week

Open meetings: The key to government transparency

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City Council meeting file

Omar Huerta addresses the city council during their meeting Monday, July 23, 2018, at City Hall in Twin Falls.

There’s more to open government than public records requests.

In his Idaho Open Meeting Law Manual, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden says the Idaho Legislature formalized the state’s commitment to open government when it enacted the 1974 Idaho Open Meeting Law. The law, he says, codifies the Idaho value that “the public’s business ought to be done in public.”

Idaho’s open meeting law applies to a governing body — defined in state statutes as members of any public agency having two or more members “with the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public agency regarding any matter.”

Sunshine Week — which runs from March 10 to March 16 this year — is an annual initiative to promote government transparency and push back against unnecessary secrecy among officials. In past years, Times-News reporters and other news agencies have participated in Sunshine Week by filing hefty public records requests to examine or copy specified public records.

This year, the newspaper’s focus is on Idaho’s Open Meeting Law. For Sunshine Week, reporters attended a host of county and city meetings to evaluate just how well local government officials are following the intent of the law.

For each of these meetings, reporters analyzed whether cities and counties were posting meeting notices and agendas and conducting public business in a truly open fashion. The observations went beyond what’s in state statutes. Assistant Chief Deputy to the Idaho Attorney General Brian Kane offered up a few of his own tips for what governments should practice when having public meetings.

“I look at government as a customer service business,” Kane said.

And while Open Meeting Law guarantees citizens to see government in action, public bodies can do some extra things to help citizens to understand what’s going on. For example, although it isn’t technically required, entities can choose to use parliamentary procedure/Robert’s Rules of Order to conduct open meetings.

“The Rules of Order actually allow you as a citizen to follow the meeting,” Kane said.

It’s also a best practice to introduce all speakers to the public.

Before the meeting, a public agency should consider posting meeting agendas to its social media site, if it has one, Kane said. And while taking minutes, it’s a good idea to do more than the bare minimum required by law, he said.

“That record may be very important at a later time,” Kane said. “The minutes are definitely something you should evaluate.”

For an example, an agency can go to the minutes for state legislative committees to see how they provide details such as who spoke and what stance he or she took.

What can citizens do to be watchdogs for local government? Attend the meetings, pay attention and see how easy they are to follow. Ask yourself, are all votes being taken unanimously and without discussion? If so, that’s a red flag, Kane said.

“You kind of expect there to be debate and different perspectives,” he said.

Below are the questions Times-News reporters considered before, during and after the meetings they attended last week.

Legal requirements:

  • Was a meeting notice and agenda notice posted at a prominent place or location of the meeting? Does the agency have a website or social media platform, and if so, was the notice and agenda posted online?
  • Was the notice posted no less than five calendar days before the meeting? And was the agenda posted within 48 hours of the meeting?
  • Was the agenda clear and specific? (e.g. it can’t say things with catchall terms such as “director’s report”). Does it list items as action items?
  • If an executive session took place, was a statute cited? Was it approved by a two-thirds vote?
  • Was there an amendment to the agenda? Was a new agenda posted or did the board make and pass a motion at the meeting stating a good faith reason something wasn’t included?
  • Were the minutes from the meeting going to be provided in a reasonable amount of time?

Best practices:

  • Was the agenda posted on social media?
  • Did the meeting follow any rules of order or procedure?
  • Were all actions taken with unanimous votes and with no discussion?
  • Were speakers introduced to the public?
  • Were minutes from the previous meeting detailed, including names of speakers, positions taken and summary of remarks?

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