Posts Tagged ‘open meetings’


FOI Daily Dose: Virginia county supervisor questions closed meeting discussion

A Virginia county supervisor called out fellow supervisors for violating Virginia’s open government laws during a closed session performance evaluation, according to The Virginia Gazette.

Before and after the closed session on July 23, supervisors had to certify that they would only discuss issues related to the performance of a county administrator.

But the day after the closed session, James County Supervisor Jim Kennedy emailed other supervisors saying he was “uncomfortable” that they also used the meeting to discuss the issue of keeping backyard chickens.

Virginia lawmakers have been in an ongoing debate about homeowners’ rights to keep and raise chickens for eggs and food. Raising chickens in some residential areas is illegal.

Kennedy said he brought the issue up for discussion at the meeting, but he did not intend the discussion to result in policy and “pages of notes,” according to The Gazette.

“I believe we all participated in a violation of public trust, and went outside the scope of the closed session and would ask (county attorney) Leo (Rogers) for his opinion,” Kennedy said in an email.

Supervisors are not supposed to discuss any material not related to an administrator’s evaluation during a closed session. Kennedy thinks their discussion was not relevant to the evaluation. Other supervisors say it was.

“Our discussions were entirely appropriate,” Supervisor John McGlennon told The Gazette. “I would say it was entirely appropriate for the Board, in evaluating the county administrator and the county attorney, to discuss issues related to our expectations of the administrator and provide direction to county staff on what the Board is concerned about.”

Rogers told The Virginia Gazette on July 26 that he was not present during the closed session, so he cannot make an opinion on whether or not the discussion was for evaluation purposes. But Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said if the administrators certified the closed session and knowingly discussed other matters, they’re breaking the law.

“Certainly I can see why it’s difficult to stick to the topic, but it absolutely has to be done,” Rhyne told The Gazette.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI Daily Dose: Attorney sues Carolinas HealthCare System for withholding confidential settlement

A Charlotte attorney is suing Carolinas HealthCare System for allegedly violating the state’s “sometimes-ambiguous” public records law by keeping a settlement confidential, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Attorney Gary Jackson is arguing that Carolinas HealthCare has no legal right to keep its settlement confidential, and he’s asking for a court order to force disclosure of the document so he can see if it’s fair.

Carolinas HealthCare won the confidential settlement in a court complaint in 2008 against the former Wachovia Bank. The hospital system said the bank broke its promise to put the hospital’s money in low-risk investments. One of their investments fell from about $15 million to $1.8 million, according to The Observer.

The hospital system’s board of directors in 2011 went into a closed session to approve the settlement, but they kept it confidential and refused to provide copies of the agreement.

Jackson and Carolinas HealthCare representatives came before a Superior Court Judge this week in a hearing to present their case.

The hospital is motioning to dismiss Jackson’s suit because the public records law does not explicitly say suits filed by a government agency are public records.

Mark Merritt, a lawyer representing the hospital system, said public disclosure could cost public bodies more money. He argued that the settlement falls through one of the public records act’s many loopholes because the law only requires public release of “any suit, administrative proceeding or arbitration instituted against any agency of North Carolina government.”

“I describe (the public records act) as a Swiss cheese,” Merritt said at the hearing. “It’s got a lot of holes in it.”

Jackson agreed the law does have holes, but said he doesn’t believe confidential settlements in lawsuits filed by public agencies should be allowed to slip through and evade the public eye.

“It’s a public body and there needs to be that transparency,” he said.

Jackson said even though Carolinas Healthcare is the largest employer in Mecklenburg County, it is “not known for transparency.”

Carolinas HealthCare system is a public, tax-exempt hospital, but Mecklenburg County officials have criticized it for acting more like a private organization than a public one, The Observer reported.

The Observer lists a series of speculative open records and open meetings violations committed by the hospital, including failing to share data about a county-owned psychiatric hospital, not inviting the public to quarterly board meetings and not providing The Observer with its administrative expenses.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI Tip of the Week: New open government podcast provides great transparency updates

“OG Pod,” a new open-government podcast focused on transparency issues in Washington, is available for listeners to access online.

The program provides advice for people searching for certain public records or planning to attend various government meetings. It will include rundowns on developments in the courts, legislature and media regarding transparency issues.

For those who need advice on the nitty gritty details of the Open Public Meetings Act or Public Records Act, this podcast will dish out plenty of helpful tips.

The Freedom Foundation and Greg Overstreet of Allied Law Group, which specializes in open government legal matters, host OG Pod. Its author is Michael Reitz, who serves as General Counsel of the Freedom Foundation and is the director of its Constitutional Law Center.

Listeners can access the podcasts from iTunes and Facebook as well.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

 

FOI Fail of the Week: Two reporters arrested at D.C. public meeting

Even at a public meeting, journalists aren’t always free to report a story as they see fit.

U.S. Park Police officers arrested two reporters at a June 22 Taxi Commission meeting in Washington, D.C. A commission staff member told the officers to make the arrests, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

Peter Tucker of thefightback.org was arrested for taking photographs of the meeting, while Jim Epstein of Reason TV was later arrested for filming the initial arrest.

Check out Epstein’s personal account of the incident.

They were arrested for “disorderly conduct and unlawful entry.” But “unlawful entry” of a public meeting?

D.C.’s open meetings law doesn’t include specific provisions addressing the photographing or filming of public meetings, according to a Washington Post blog.

Unless taking photos or video of a public meeting specifically violates an area’s public meetings law, reporters shouldn’t be punished – and certainly shouldn’t be arrested – for doing so.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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