"It isn't practical or efficient," Payson Deputy Town Attorney Tim Wright explained to the anxiously listening committee members. "It doesn't always make sense. It isn't easy. It is frustrating and restrictive. but it is the law."
In this case, he was talking about the state's open meeting law, intended to make sure that elected and appointed officials make all their decisions in public.
Wright briefs town committees on the law whenever new members come on board, trying to make sure that they don't run a foul of restrictions that bar a voting majority of any public body from meeting privately to discuss upcoming votes.
The law requires public bodies to provide timely notice of its meetings, list agenda topics ahead of time, stick to those agendas -- and not work out their votes with a majority ahead of time.
Ironically, the Payson Town Council is currently under investigation by the state Attorney General's office for allegedly discussing town business with the entire council assembled at an unofficial luncheon while attending an Arizona League of Cities meeting last year.
Wright explained the key points of the law at a recent meeting of the Surface Transportation Advisory Committee.
The points he covered included:
What constitutes a meeting?
It is a gathering of the more than half of the members of a public body, referred to as a quorum, during which they discuss, deliberate, consider, propose, or take action on any matter that may require final action or decision by the body.
How does a quorum form?
It is formed when more than half of the members of the body are present or communicate in person, on phone, fax, memo, e-mail, or electronically. It can also be facilitated by a third person, not excluding nonpublic body members. As a result, if a council member uses the phone or e-mail to find out how fellow council members are voting on an upcoming issue and reveals how a majority intends to vote, that could constitute a meeting of a quorum of the council, under the terms of the law.
Four main criteria for holding a meeting:
- Agenda -- information that gives a reasonable member of the public an idea of what the body will discuss;
- Notice -- at least 24 hours in advance;
- Open to public -- public has the right to see and hear, but not participate; and
- Minutes -- kept and available to public, including notice of any action on the website.
Arizona adopted its first open meeting law in 1962 and amended it periodically, including a major rewrite in 2000.
The purpose of the open meeting law is to allow public access to the governmental process and to set guidelines for public bodies.
The law defines five categories of public bodies: 1) boards, commissions, and other multimember governing bodies; 2) quasi-governmental corporations; 3) quasi-judicial bodies; 4) advisory committees; and 5) standing and special committees and subcommittees of any of the above.
In 1962, the Legislature declared that, "It is the public policy of this state that proceedings in meetings of governing bodies of the state and political subdivisions thereof exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of this act that their official deliberations and proceedings be conducted openly."
In 1978, the Legislature included the requirements that meetings held by public bodies be conducted openly and that the public be given notice and agendas that include information regarding matters to be discussed or decided.
In 2000, the Legislature prohibited a quorum of a public body from secretly communicating through technological devises, including facsimile machines, telephones, and electronic mail.
Sanctions for violations of the open meeting law can include nullification of actions taken as a result of an illegal meeting.