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AG: City officials did violate open meeting law

By Staff | Feb 27, 2009

The Rugby City Council violated the state’s open meetings and records law by failing to provide proper notice of its July, 2008 regular meeting; two August, 2008 special meetings; and two September, 2008 special meetings, according to a recent opinion issued by the N.D. Attorney General’s office.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem also gave an opinion on another issue regarding the discussion topics not listed in the agenda of a special city council meeting. That opinion found the city council did not violate the law.

The request for an A.G.’s opinion came last year from Pierce County resident Deidre Godycki.

Issue one

The first issue regarded discussing topics not listed in the agenda of a city council special meeting. And two, whether the city’s Public Safety Committee properly gave notice of its meetings.

In regard to issue one, “Public notice must be given in advance of all meet-

ings of a public entity. Every notice must contain the date, time and location of the meeting, and the topics to be discussed at the meeting. The topics that may be considered at an emergency or special meeting of a governing body are limited to those included in the notice of the meeting.”

The Rugby City Council’s agenda for a Sept. 22, 2008 special meeting included an item entitled “other business.” According to the Rugby City Council, it is standard practice to include this item in case a matter of some urgency needs to come before the city council prior to a regular council meeting. In this case, however, the Rugby City Council states that every item discussed at the Sept. 22 meeting related to the city’s 2009 preliminary budget, which was listed as an item on the agenda.

In 2005, the AG’s office explained the phrase “other business” lacks the specificity required for a special meeting agenda. Such “catch-all” phrase invites unspecified matters to be discussed at special meetings. Likewise, a phrase in a special meeting notice stating “any other issues that may need council attention” also failed to specifically identify the topics to be discussed by a governing body.

However, in these past opinions, not only were the notices written vaguely, but the governing bodies discussed topics that were not specifically listed on the agenda. The Rugby City Council only discussed the 2009 preliminary budget, which was specially listed on the agenda. Therefore, although the Rugby City Council should discontinue the practice of putting “other business” on its agendas for special meetings, it is the attorney general’s opinion that, in this instance, a violation of the law did not occur.

Issue two

In regard to issue two, “Except as otherwise specifically provided by law, all meetings of a public entity must be open to the public. A governing body includes ‘any group of persons, regardless of membership, acting collectively pursuant to authority delegated to that group by the governing body.’ It is well established that a committee of a city council, exercising authority delegated to the committee by its council, is a governing body. Here, the Public Safety Committee does not dispute that it is a committee of the Rugby City Council. However, the Public Safety Committee states that it was not aware that it was required to provide the same notice as the Rugby City Council prior to its meetings.

“A committee of a governing body has the same notice obligations as the governing body. The notice of a regular meeting must contain the date, time and location of the meeting, and when practicable, the topics to be considered or agenda. The notice must be posted at the principal office of the governing body holding the meeting, if the governing body has such an office, and at the location of the meeting on the day of the meeting. The notice must also be filed with the city auditor, or designee of the city, for city-level governing bodies.

“There are two additional requirements for special or emergency meetings. One, the public entity’s official newspaper, if any, must be provided notice as well as any person requesting such information; and two, the notice must list each topic to be discussed. Discussion at a special or emergency meeting, is limited to the topics listed in the notice.”

The Public Safety Committee drafted a notice and agenda for the July 31, 2008 regular meeting and the Aug. 7 and 21 special meetings. The notices were posted at City Hall but not filed with the city auditor. The purpose of filing the notice with the auditor is to have a central location for people to find out about public meetings of the city. The Public Safety Committee also failed to notify the city’s official newspaper of the special meetings held on Aug. 7 and Aug. 21.

The Public Safety Committee states that no notice was prepared for its special meetings held Sept. 20 and 22, 2008, “due to the short notice of each meeting.”

Special or emergency meetings are often called on very short notice. The law requires notification of the official county newspaper to compensate for the possibility that the public may not otherwise learn about the meeting. Notifying an official newspaper does not mean that the notice must be published by the newspaper, for there is no general publication requirement under the general open meetings law. Rather, the notification provides the newspaper with an opportunity to follow up on the meeting or to have a reporter attend and cover the meeting.

Prior to the AG opinions, city officials took steps to change the procedures for notifying the public of all meetings involving committees which represent city interests, including public safety, and infrastructure and planning and zoning. A calendar listing the upcoming meetings will be posted at City Hall. The official newspaper, the Pierce County Tribune, is also notified of the meeting schedule. Also, no longer is the phrase “other business” included on the agenda of special council meetings.

Information taken from the N.D. Attorney General’s website

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