Getting past the secrecy of government meetings is an age-old challenge for journalists. While the nation’s founders did much of their work behind closed doors to craft our Constitution, modern government officials seem to, at least, give lip service to the notions of transparency and openness.
The SPJ/Bloomberg National Training Program “documents-driven newsroom” curriculum has been helping reporters across the nation better use public records and public meetings laws. As we review open meetings laws, trainers focus on common abuses and give suggestions to hold officials to their commitment to govern in the sunshine.
Here’s a summary of our “Top 10 meeting Tips” for reporters to more effectively cover meetings and help officials understand laws:
1. Diffuse the open meetings bomb.
If an agenda item looks like it might amount to a questionable meeting closure under your state law, start making phone calls to the agency attorney, members of the government board or local Freedom of Information hotline. You might be able to convince board members of their folly before they break the law.
2. “Retreats” should raise a red flag.
If the meeting meets the definition of a “quorum” or “meeting” in your state’s open meetings law, the public should be able to attend even if it is at some posh mountain resort. The same goes for bus excursions of a public body to tour possible sites for a school or sports venue. Make sure you get a seat on the bus.
3. Be careful of attorney-client privilege.
Many states don’t recognize this as a reason to close a public meeting, but it is often used to talk in secret.
4. Challenge “stealth agendas.”
You’ve probably seen these. They say “Old business, new business and executive session.” Many states require “reasonable specificity” on meetings agendas. Journalists and the public ought to demand detailed agendas even if it’s not in the law. If this is a problem, consider asking for a change in the law.
5. Question boilerplate closures.
Many governmental bodies, as a matter of course, always include an “executive” or “closed” session at the end of their agenda. Always including such a closure, even when not needed, likely engenders secrecy and unneeded closed sessions.
6. Beware of “electronic meetings.”
Watch out for conference call meetings, meetings via video conference or even meetings through e-mail, chat or instant messaging. Unless there is a specific process for such meetings spelled out in your open meetings law, it may be illegal. You may want to consider asking a lawmaker to update your state law to regulate the use of new technology. Some states have enacted laws that require any electronic meeting to have an anchor location where the public and journalists can attend and listen to all parties who must be identified.
7. No votes to go into “executive sessions.”
Most states require a formal vote of two-thirds of a government body before it goes into secret. Bone up on what your law requires.
8. Beware of “work meetings,” “premeetings” or “committee of the whole” meetings.
There’s a growing trend to have work meetings before a regular government meeting. Officials like the idea of lining up votes before the heat is really on. If it meets the definition of a meeting in your state law, then the public may attend. The same goes for officials meeting for pie and coffee after the meeting at the café across the street from City Hall. Some states are updating their laws to require that work meetings be held near the location of the regular public meeting and that they meet all notice requirements.
9. Get the meeting documents.
Normally, most documents associated with a public meeting should be available through a state public record request. Many bodies will provide agendas and documents upon request. You can make the case that having the meeting documents before items are discussed help journalists be more accurate and complete in their meeting coverage.
10. Beware of executive sessions for nonspecific times and locations.
In some states, government boards have tried to use this ploy to hold a secret meeting (e.g., interview of college presidential candidate) so that the public doesn’t know when or where the body is meeting.
If you fail in stopping what may be an illegal meeting, here’s advice that helps you have legal standing in any action challenging a closed meeting.
Stand, object and ask that your objection be noted in the minutes. If available, ask for a delay so you may call your news organization’s attorney or local Freedom of Information hotline.
Ask the reason for the closure be recorded in the minutes.
Tell participants if they violate an open meeting law, their decisions will be void (this is true in most states. Please check your state law).
If the meeting has already started, deliver a written objection.
Do not volunteer to leave the meeting.
If journalists in your state are having frequent problems with open meetings violations, you might consider asking the government to conduct an audit. At the request of a state representative, the Utah Auditor investigated how well school boards were following the state’s open meetings law.
Auditors found widespread problems with key provisions of the law. The audit led to the introduction of two bills in the Utah legislature that will require, for the first time, audio taping of open and closed sessions and institute criminal fines for willful violation of the law. Also, government officials will be required to take training courses about the law, and new language in the law addresses problems with stealth agendas, premeetings and other abuses.
SPJ’s Utah Headliners Chapter pushed for such reforms more than five years ago to great resistance from the Utah League of Cities and Towns and Utah Association of Counties.
However, this year, with the evidence from an audit and lawmakers championing the cause, there was little or no resistance to the law changes. Key allies were good government groups that had problems with government officials editing meeting minutes and calling unneeded closed meetings.
In the end, journalists are most often on the front lines when government goes into secret. Your best defense it knowing your state law.
A former reporter and editor, Joel Campbell is a co-chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee and an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He is a trainer with the SPJ-Bloomberg Training Program. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.