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Open government isn't always simple government

--- Seminar highlights pitfalls of meeting requirements

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Nov. 5, 2007, 9:38 a.m.)

Elkhorn-based attorney Chris Halverson had some municipal clerks and elected officials second-guessing their everyday government practices.

His seminar Tuesday on public meeting requirements raised some questions, and it appeared at least some of the attendees might have been treading close violating open meetings law requirements.

In other words, there were a lot of "what if we" and "how do I" questions asked of Halverson, who has been studying open government laws as part of his work as a municipal attorney.

"I don't think (violations are being done) intentionally, but I think the level of understanding of these issues was low to begin with," Halverson said.

Halverson focused on case law that last year determined open meetings agendas needed to be more specific. Citizens have the right to know more details about meeting topics, particularly those who are directly affected.

"Keep in mind that the tendency of the court is to require as much openness as possible and as much information as possible going on the notices," Halverson said. "As reasonably as you can--without bankrupting your municipalities or overburdening your staff--make the notices as specific as possible."

If a multi-million dollar highway is going to be built near a subdivision, the agenda item for discussing the topic simply can't say "roadwork," he said.

People are taking more of an interest in open government because they're "overtaxed," and government is playing a greater role in their lives, Halverson said.

Municipalities and their governing bodies need to be careful, especially with the public keeping a close eye on them, said Barb Fischer, town of Lafayette clerk.

"Smaller municipalities have a tendency where they're not as formal," she said. "It's easier to get away with the way things were done in the past, but people are getting around to changing."

What to watch out for:

--- Board or committee members attending a training seminar should not talk about what they learned and how it applies to their town. Doing so could present a "walking quorum" situation. If there were no agenda posted, it could be an open meetings law violation, Halverson said. Avoiding traveling to training sessions together was recommended.

--- Board or committee members attending other committees to listen in can present problems if agendas don't note that those members may be in attendance. Even though they may not participate with the committee, it is wise to at least note there might be a quorum of the full board in attendance, either by a special agenda or on the meeting's agenda.

--- Except for privileged correspondence with attorneys, and a few other examples, all e-mails to and from municipal offices are open to the public for inspection. They should not be destroyed. Board or committee members e-mailing one another about municipal business can also create a walking quorum and be in violation of open meetings laws.

--- Agenda postings need to be reasonable. Simply posting the agenda on a municipality's or school district's Web site is probably not sufficient, as not everyone has easy access to the Internet.

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