NORMAN — Like the proverbial sword that cuts both ways, technology allows for easy access of information. But that same easy access means city council members, county commissioners and other governing bodies and members of boards and trusts can exchange information in violation of open meetings laws.
Email is one of the most problematic of the tools modern government uses. Emailing another city council member, for example, to ask an informational question is legal, but emailing everyone or hitting “reply all” in response to a question sent out by city staff can result in a violation of open meetings law, if the exchange becomes a discussion
Training is provided to incoming council members on the appropriate use of email.
“They’re required by law to get training on that,” Council member Tom Kovach said.
Additional training is provided in-house.
“What we do in-house, and I think City Clerk Brenda Hall does an excellent job of that, is she gives a brief primer on open meetings law,” Kovach said.
A recent debate over a memo asking for input from council members brought some of the gray areas into question.
“There was a question raised by (open meeting expert) Joey Senat on when it’s proper to give direction and whether it constitutes a vote,” Kovach said. “That hasn’t been answered yet.”
The city council continues to work for better compliance and transparency.
“I see that there’s an effort toward a better awareness,” Kovach said. “If we’ve done something wrong that we’ve done for 10 years, let’s change that. If that (Senat’s interpretation of the law) is a very strict interpretation, let’s honor that as much as we can.”
Kovach said the opinions of the attorneys and the state attorney general can guide the city in the right direction.
“Maybe it’s just a cultural change that we need to go back to,” he said. “The council may just need to step back from these things and, if staff needs direction, it shouldn’t be the council going one by one to each other.”
Kovach said a solution might be to go through the city manager when the need arises to gather feedback from council members. In that case, city staff keeps the information and doesn’t exchange who said what.
Also under discussion in the City Council Oversight Committee that Kovach chairs is a recommendation to further formalize the requirement that committees and subcommittees must follow the open meetings act.
Kovach said previously, the city council expanded open meetings policy to those committees to prevent shadow government where decisions are made outside of the public’s view.
“The council voted unanimously on both open meetings and open records,” he said.