A befuddled group of newly elected officials got a lesson in how not to end up like Payson or Star Valley, which have both found themselves in the open meeting doghouse after violating the law.
Both Payson and Star Valley were effectively put on probation for violating Arizona’s Open Meeting Law in some capacity. A previous Payson council did so by discussing personnel changes over a private lunch at a League of Cities and Towns convention and Star Valley by not listing the topic of two executive sessions.
To curb problems, new officials must now review the law before taking office.
Mostly new members of rural fire boards attended a recent training course on the law, held at Gila Community College with Gila County Chief Deputy Attorney Bryan Chambers.
A few “oops” and “ohs” were groaned in the meeting, as board members realized they may have inadvertently violated the law during their term.
One man raised his hand and asked if he could add an item to the agenda once a meeting had started. Another asked if it was all right to discuss and make decisions on matters through e-mail.
Both examples, violated the law, Chambers said.
Public bodies must give the public 24-hour notice of what the board will discuss so people can attend the discussion.
Adding something to the agenda once a meeting has started defeats the point.
Discussing an issue through e-mail also leaves the public out of the conversation and therefore breaks the law.
“The whole purpose is so the public can hear the debate,” Chambers said.
While most boards attempt to follow the law, sometimes they make mistakes.
Chambers admitted most board members do not intend to break the law, especially since they are volunteers, but this does not mean they won’t face consequences.
“The law is not intuitive,” he said.
“You don’t wake up thinking, ‘I am going to violate the opening meeting law today.’”
To prevent a mistake, public officials should verge on being overly open.
“If it is a close call between being open or not, if there is a gray area, then lean towards being open,” Chambers said.
Chambers gave the example of a five-person fire board wanting to purchase a new fire truck.
Since a fire board is a public body, it would need to put the issue on an agenda. If the fire board decided to appoint an advisory committee to look at buying a truck, it would also need to give notice of the committee’s meetings and keep minutes.
In fact, anytime a voting majority of members gather, in person or through technological devices to discuss, propose or take legal action, it must be open to the public.
Therefore, if three board members got together and deliberated buying the truck at a baseball game, for example, they would violate state law.
While it is not illegal for board members to gather at a luncheon, for example, they can’t talk “shop,” Chambers said.
It is best to leave all talk to the meetings.
If a board member brings up a topic not on the agenda during a meeting, discussion should stop and the issue put on a later agenda.
If a board wishes to discuss something in executive session, the board needs to list a general description of the matter on the agenda. Listing “legal advice” is not sufficient. The board needs to say they are “considering legal advice regarding the purchase of equipment,” for example.
Within three days after a meeting, the public can inspect the minutes.
If a board violates any part of the law and the attorney general’s office or county attorney’s office discovers this, the board and its members face a $500 fine for each offense and possibly removal from office.
Since most boards will not openly admit they have violated the statute, it is up to citizens and the news media to monitor public bodies for compliance.
A copy of the open meeting law is available at www.azag.gov/Agency_Handbook/