Keeping us in sunshine

Published 4:30 pm Friday, September 4, 2009

Click Here To View The Open Meetings and Open Records Laws (260K PDF)

Cynicism and mistrust of government agencies seem to be at an all-time high. I know I have never experienced a time when citizens take such a crooked view of Washington, Atlanta and the local governmental boards and bodies located throughout Decatur County.

Forever, the general public has put politicians in a certain category of being dishonest, scheming and hypocritical. While, certainly, some have earned that designation, most, I have found, honestly try to do the best they can and have their constituents’ best interest at heart.

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The best tool that citizens have to help our representatives do their jobs honestly and above-board is a set of laws, both federal and state, that require these boards and bodies to conduct business in a transparent manner.

Commonly known as Sunshine Laws, these guidelines are the very basics of an open government. And an open, transparent government is essential to our democracy.

There are two main components that comprise the Sunshine Laws, the Open Meetings Law and the Open Records Law. These laws are straightforward and not open to a great deal of interpretation.

The Open Meetings Law, in a nutshell, says that state and local governmental bodies and agencies conduct business in plain view so citizens can review and monitor both elected officials and appointed committee members. These people, after all, serve you, the taxpayers.

All meetings by city councils, county commissions, school boards, planning commissions, hospital and development authorities, and any group or committee formed by a governmental body are completely open to the public. Any member of the public also has the right to either audio or video record any meeting.

The legal definition of a meeting is also not open to interpretation, according the law.

Simply, if a quorum, or a majority, of the members of any board or body meet together to discuss official business, then that gathering is considered an official meeting. The meeting can be called a work session, a planning session, or gathering, but if a majority of the body’s members are present, it is a meeting.

The governing body is also required by law to provide at least 24 hours notice convening a meeting. During emergency situations that require the governing body to meet, the 24-hour rule is waived, but notice of the meeting is still required.

A meeting must be convened and adjourned. No discussion can take place prior to the commencement of a meeting and after the adjournment. Accurate minutes of all discussions and conversations must be kept, there is no “off the record” during a meeting of a public body.

There are certain situations that allow a governing body to meet in private and exclude the public. Even then, the official reason for closing the meeting must be presented during the open meeting. The most common reasons for closing a meeting and going into “executive sessions include discussing personnel matters, attorney-client discussions, and acquisition of real estate.” All told, there are eight plainly described reasons why a governing body can exclude the public.

Locally, the most used reason for going into closed meeting is to discuss personnel matters. The law applies to “meetings when discussing or deliberating upon the appointment, employment, compensation, hiring, disciplinary action or dismissal, or periodic evaluation or rating of a public officer or employee but not when receiving evidence or hearing argument on charges filed to determine disciplinary action or dismissal of a public officer or employee.”

Under no circumstances, however, can a vote be taken on an official action item while in closed session, regardless of what was discussed in the closed session.

One of the responsibilities of this newspaper, and newspapers all across the state and nation, is to make sure these laws are followed and our governing bodies operate in plain view. That is a responsibility that I take very seriously. One of the responsibilities of our governing bodies is to follow these laws and operate in plain view; my hope is our governing bodies take that responsibility seriously.