Saturday, November 12, 2011

Butler County loses another Open Meetings appeal

Butler County Fiscal Court has violated the Open Meetings Law again; this time, the court failed to distribute an agenda to fiscal court members for its September 14 special meeting 24 hours before the meeting.

The Open Meetings Law requires public agencies to deliver a special meeting notice consisting of the date, time, and place of the special meeting and the agenda for the special meeting at least 24 hours before a special meeting.

In this case, fiscal court members received a copy of the agenda minutes before the meeting began. The fiscal court argued that this was a mere technical violation because there was reference to the special meeting on the September 12th regular meeting agenda. The fiscal court, through County Attorney Richard J. Deye, reasoned that this reference gave adequate notice of when the special meeting would be and what its purpose was.

In its response issued Nov. 1, the Office of the Attorney General restated two important principles:

"The [Open Meetings] Act does not recognize a class of violations of lesser gravity than the remaining violations and therefore capable of being dismissed as merely “technical.”

“The failure to comply with the strict letter of the law in conducting meetings of a public agency violated the public good.”

In a letter to the attorney general, County Attorney Deye argued, “[t]he only provision of the Open Meetings Law that was violated is that the magistrates did not receive a piece of paper twenty-four hours in advance . . . . One must struggle to discern how the actions of the Butler County Fiscal Court compromised the citizens of Butler County.”

The attorney general's office answered that claim in the opinion, "Neither this office nor the Butler County Fiscal Court need 'struggle to discern' how the interests of the citizens of Butler County were compromised by the Fiscal Court’s failure to comply with the express requirements of the Open Meetings Law. The law recognizes harm any time an agency acts in derogation of these requirements regardless of how inconsequential its actions may appear to the agency."

The opinion also noted that the law does not empower the attorney general to impose fines or negate actions because of Open Meetings Law violations, but the law does allow a circuit court judge to impose penalties.

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