Q&A: Dinner with elected officials


From the Connersville News-Examiner:

Q: There will be an invitation-only dinner hosted by private energy company NextEra Energy Resources. They have invited all Fayette County Council members, Fayette County commissioners and other specific community members to this event.

The topic of discussion will be the Whitewater Wind Farm project, specifically NextEra’s efforts to obtain zoning permits from the county to construct wind turbines.

No public notice of this meeting has yet been given, nor did the News-Examiner receive an invitation to the event.

Given that the dinner would likely include quorums of the county council and commissioners, and obviously will include discussion about the zoning permits, would this dinner constitute a public meeting?

Another point of interest is that they are not inviting any members of the county’s Area Plan Commission or Board of Zoning Appeals to the dinner, the bodies which would make a recommendation, one way or the other, on the zoning permit applications. Instead, they are inviting the governmental body – the commissioners – that has the overall final say on whether permits and zoning are approved or not.

A: Based on the information you provided, if I was the attorney for either the commissioners or county council, I would advise them to give notice of the event/meeting if a majority plan to attend and require the hosts to allow the public to view the proceedings. (They don’t have to feed anyone.)

I say this because NextEra has invited two entire governing bodies, at least one that will act on the permits if the process moves forward, according to your note.

NextEra intends to share information on its request for the Area Plan Commission, so it appears the two governing bodies will be taking official action (receiving information) about public business.

It appears NextEra is attempting to avoid an Open Door Law issue by purposely avoiding the Area Plan Commission members in the dinner, but if the process takes it before either the council or commissioners for approval down the road, they still have a problem.

If NextEra allows any interested party to sit on the side and observe/record and two governing bodies give notice, there isn’t a problem. Or if they only invite less than a majority of either the council or commissioners, there would be no quorum to trigger the meeting definition. That minority could report back to other governing body members in a meeting open to the public.

They can’t use the chance or social exception to a meeting since they’ve declared that discussion of the zoning permits is part of the planned agenda.

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