Our View: Simple change could clarify meetings law

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Next time legislators look under the hood of the state’s Open Meetings Act, we suggest a little fine-tuning to avoid more bumpy rides.

That minor adjustment would involve clarifying the definition of a “meeting.” Specifically, someone who has been elected to a governing body – but has not yet taken office – should be counted as a member if he or she takes part in discussing public business.

In November, the Whiteside County Board met to discuss the election of a new chairman. Then-recently elected members met with incumbents behind closed doors in what was described as a “political caucus” of the board’s Democratic majority. The attorney general recently ruled that gathering was an illegal meeting of the board because it involved public business. DeKalb County board members held a similar meeting – after taking a recess from a public meeting – in 2012.

What the Whiteside County Board did was clearly a violation of the Open Meetings Act because, even without counting the new members, a majority of a quorum of board incumbents attended the meeting. “Majority of a quorum” is the general definition of a legal meeting to which the public should be invited to observe and record.

In Dixon, it has been common practice for the City Council after municipal elections for commissioners to meet in private to divide specific assignments among the members. That happened after the 2011 election, when three new members – a majority of the council – met to decide who would handle which responsibilities of departmental oversight.

Whether the Dixon commissioners broke the law isn’t so clear. Because only one of four council members was an incumbent, the majority of those present had not been sworn in – even though they talked about assignments that they would, by law, have to approve in an open meeting. (Coincidentally, minutes of subsequent public meetings indicate the council failed to take such an official vote in 2011.)

Asked whether that closed meeting in 2011 was illegal, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Hartman said he didn’t know whether members-elect counted toward a majority of a quorum. A request for an official opinion from his office has to be submitted within 60 days of the alleged violation. In this case, that deadline passed two years ago.

A simple amendment to the Open Meetings Act should make clear that members-elect, for the purposes of establishing a majority of a quorum, are to be considered members. If they are discussing public matters on which they will eventually take final action, their discussions should be open to the public – even if they haven’t been sworn in.

These are two examples of what likely is more instances of – at least – breaking the spirit of the Open Meetings Act. Illegal or not, a secret meeting is a lousy way for a new administration to begin its term.

Compliance with the law should mean 100 percent. From Day 1. That would ensure a smooth ride for everyone.

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