From the Mooresville-Decatur Times:
Q: A Madison Township board held a meeting where votes were taken on an action and other business was discussed without a paid public notice. The newspaper also did not receive any notice of the meeting by fax, email or telephone.
In a previous HSPA Hotline, you said as long as officials fulfilled their public notice advertising obligation that is sufficient in most cases. But the fire chief admitted that because of some sort of time crunch, they didn’t run a public notice ad. Two township residents who found out about the meeting said no notice was on the doors of the fire station. Is there anything to be done about this?
A: Most meetings of township advisory boards fall under Open Door Law requirements. That would include notice given to media that request such notification at least 48 hours prior to the meeting and posting at the office of the board or at the location of the meeting.
Certain meetings require a paid public notice placed in a local newspaper (notice of a budget hearing, for example). A meeting to discuss board policy with no notice would violate the Open Door Law.
Such an action exposes the board to the possibility of litigation that could lead to a judge declaring the action taken at that meeting null and void.
The board could be ordered to reimburse the plaintiff for reasonable court costs and attorney fees. And, if a judge finds the violation was deliberate, he or she could levy a civil fine of up to $100 against the culprits.
Newspapers and citizens should bring this issue to the attention of the trustee and board. If they don’t want to comply with the law, a complaint should be lodged with state Public Access Counselor Luke Britt.
If this doesn’t get them to act properly, a lawsuit would be a last resort. A prior public access counselor opinion is necessary to assure the reimbursement of court costs if someone is forced to file a lawsuit.
If a lawsuit is filed, the plaintiff also could ask for an injunction from the judge that the board must follow the statute in the future. If the board still violates the statute, the judge could find them in contempt of court, which can lead to fines or jail time.
Contact Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, with media law questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or (317) 624-4427.