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How the Open Meeting Law Works in Flagstaff

Jerry NaboursWhat is the Open Meeting Law? How does it affect the City Council? Is it a good thing or not?

The Open Meeting Law is a state law that requires all governing bodies to hold their meetings in public, open to the public, with specific agendas and with publicly posted notices of the meeting and the agenda. No action may be taken outside of such public meetings.

That is all good. Nobody wants our government, at any level, to be acting in secret or behind closed doors.

The sticky part is that a “meeting” is defined as a gathering of a quorum of the governing body (that is four members of the City Council), whether at one time or in a series of meetings or even by emails or through an intermediary.

The net result is that four of us must not discuss an issue outside of a proper City Council meeting. And I mean not even discuss it. We take a very conservative approach. We avoid having four of us in the same room. We would never have lunch or dinner together, whether we were discussing business or not.

On the occasions when four of us will be at the same event, we post a public notice disclosing that event and stating we will not be discussing business. The public can come and watch us to be sure. We avoid sitting at the same table.

If two of us want to discuss an issue, we make sure neither of us has discussed it with other council members. That could lead to an indirect discussion among four. We are careful not to send emails to each other. And, we are careful not to tell an outside party how we are looking at an issue if there is a chance that party will tell the others.

It gets a little crazy in our efforts to comply with the law. We could be sued and fined for violations but our motivation is to maintain the highest credibility and avoid even the appearance of trying to circumvent the law.

There is an arguable detriment to this law. It keeps the council from having frank discussions with each other on ways we might be able to compromise on issues or explore alternatives. Sometimes, elected officials do not want to have such discussions in public. It reminds me of litigation. If compromises and settlements could not be conducted in confidence and privately, no case would ever get settled.

In the old days, we would hear stories about how the state legislators would go to a bar and work out the issues of the state. Was that a better system than the public political posturing we see today?

By Jerry Nabours

Jerry Nabours is the mayor of the City of Flagstaff.

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