Q&A: Sub-committees and open meetings


From The Commercial Review (Portland):

Q: Jay County has seen tremendous growth in the past several years in the number of confined animal feeding operations. Faced with public concern about the density of such operations and the impact on property values as well as the environment, the county plan commission asked the county commissioners to appoint a sub-committee to study current zoning ordinances and come back with recommendations for improvements.

The sub-committee has met in public sessions and has met the public notice requirement. Now, the sub-committee has proposed breaking into two sub-groups to gather information and study four particular aspects of the issue.

Those sub-groups would make no decisions but would report back to the larger sub-committee. My feeling is that the sub-groups of the sub-committee must follow the same rules on notice and openness.

In addition, the entire sub-committee has been invited to tour a large-scale poultry operation as part of its information-gathering process. For public health reasons, the operator can’t open things up to the general public, though it may be possible to get a reporter attached to the group. They’ll be wearing protective gear, etc.

What’s legal? What’s not?

A: The sub-groups of the sub-committee are not subject to the Open Door Law.

Under the IC 5-14-1.5-2(b)(3) definition of “governing body,” it describes a committee appointed directly by the governing body or its presiding officer. That would not be the case with the sub-committee.

This issue was litigated in Robinson v. Indiana University in a 1994 Court of Appeals case. The academic community was concerned about being required to open the door to their various sub-committees, particularly in research areas.

There’s nothing to prevent those sub-groups from holding open meetings, but they are not legally obligated to do so.

The legislature also addressed road trips under the definition of a “meeting” at IC 5-14-1.5-2(c)(2), which excludes from the definition any on-site inspection of any project, program, or facilities of applicants seeking assistance from the governing body.

So the sub-committee can inspect the poultry operation without any obligation to allow members of the public to join them. The only caveat is they can’t be making decisions during the inspection. That should be saved for a public meeting.

They could allow a reporter to join them on the inspection, but you could have an issue from the agribusiness owner who might not want a reporter on the property or photos taken.

Contact Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, with media law questions at skey@hspa.com or (317) 624-4427.