Closed-door sessions are becoming too common place in the halls of city and parish governments as officials choose to talk about this, that or the other without the public present.
There are specific exceptions to the Open Meetings Act which allow secret sessions. But in many cases those specifics are being superceded by such generalities as “personnel matters” or “litigation.”
Elected officials and the attorneys they hire to advise them need to revisit the preamble of R.S. 42, the Open Meetings Act.
Lawmakers in their wisdom at the time of enactment noted:
“It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. Toward this end, the provisions of R.S. 42:4.1 through 10 shall be construed liberally.”
In other words, government needs to be conducted in the open for the benefit and knowledge of the general public. Locking the public out should be done only in extraordinary circumstances.
Too many officials in the venues that Louisiana State Newspapers cover have lost sight of that guidance, if they ever knew it at all.
For instance, one school board has an executive session to discuss “personnel matters” on its agenda at practically every meeting.
Closed meetings to discuss character, professional competence or physical or mental health of an individual are permitted, providing the person has 24 hours notice and the opportunity to have the discussion in public.
But the intent of the Legislature, we believe, was not to provide a meeting-to-meeting venue for the cloaked discussion of public business.
And discussion of “personnel matters” could very well be considered outside the boundaries of a School Board’s authority and responsibility.
School Boards are supposed to approve budgets and implement policy. “Personnel matters” are the superintendent’s task.
Putting “personnel matters” on the agenda for closed talk merely allows board members to stick their noses where they don’t necessarily belong.
In several venues, city and parish councils routinely lock the door to talk about people being considered for a public position, expressly prohibited by law.
No where in the Open Meetings Act do we find an exemption to allow discussion, revisions and consideration of minutes of previous meetings. Yet a public body in one LSN venue regularly does such.
In another, any matter that could wind up in court is the springboard for a closed discussion of “litigation”, even though litigation hasn’t been filed and no demand has been made.
As far as can be determined, no actual votes are taken in these public-barred discussions. But votes taken after most of them are mere formalities with no discussions.
What can be done?
Citizens have up to 60 days after what they consider a violation to file suit, but most have neither the inclination nor the funding to take that course.
The better choice is for you to let your city council, police jury, parish council, school board, fire district, hospital district, road district, drainage district and other governmental body members know you want public business discussed in public and remind them of that every time they shut you out.