If you read comments from Westfield, Indiana, city officials concerning their secret committee meetings, you’ll understand why newspapers must continually push public agencies to follow the state’s Open Door Law.
In a recent story in The Indianapolis Star, Westfield officials acknowledge the council’s finance committee has been meeting privately to discuss details of a controversial funding plan for a $25 million soccer arena.
Westfield City Attorney Brian Zaiger told reporter Chris Sikich that the committee doesn’t fall under the scope of the statute because the council didn’t formally create it, it doesn’t include a majority of council members, and it takes no final actions.
None of those arguments hold water.
The statute includes committees appointed directly by the governing body or its presiding officer. Is Zaiger saying an outside entity created the finance committee?
Even if the council created a committee that included no council members, it would still be subject to the Open Door Law requirements for notice and open meetings.
And the attorney also missed the definition of “official action” that can trigger a meeting as defined by law.
Official action includes: receiving information, deliberating, making recommendations, establishing policy, making decisions or taking final actions (votes).
Westfield Mayor Andy Cook and City Council President Jim Ake said the meetings aren’t really secret because anyone who showed up would be allowed to sit and listen.
But Westfield gives no notice of the finance committee meetings as required under the Open Door Law.
Cook suggested that citizens could learn of the committee meetings by making Access to Public Records Act requests of the personal calendars of the elected council members.
Really? Westfield residents should be required to request records on a regular basis to learn when a council committee that formulates the city budget plans to hold a meeting?
I suggest Cook take a look at the first section of the Open Door Law, specifically where it says official action of public agencies should be conducted in the open so Hoosiers may be fully informed.
Ake’s comment on the situation I’m sure represents the view of many public officials across the state.
“We’ve never been asked to open them,” he told The Star. “That’s just the way it’s always been.”
I believe him. I doubt there was malice involved in the secret meetings or a conspiracy to keep Westfield citizens in the dark.
The result of that rational, though, is that recommendations are formulated without any public awareness until it’s too late for citizens to voice their concerns or to have a fair chance of modifying the plan of action.
I’d be a richer man if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard an attorney say a meeting wasn’t a meeting because no vote was taken or an elected official ask why closed meetings are a problem since that’s the way it’s always been done.
Newspaper editors and reporters would do well to stay on the lookout for governing bodies that don’t seem to be on the up-and-up with publicizing committee and other public meetings.
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.