Apparent Open Meeting Act violations by the Alva City Council

Alva's City Council meeting on Monday night seemed to violate state law in four ways.

Possible Violation No. 1: Vague agenda items failing to give the public actual notice of the business to be discussed and acted upon.

Possible Violation No. 2: During executive session, discussing business not listed on the agenda for the executive session.

Possible Violation No. 3: Taking action on business not listed on the agenda.

Possible Violation No. 4: Failing to post agendas.

Agendas should be worded in “plain language, directly stating the purpose of the meeting, in order to give the public actual notice,” the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals has said. (Haworth Bd. of Ed., 1981 OK CIV APP 56, ¶ 9)

But Alva City Council agendas didn’t “give the public actual notice.” For example, its second item of business on Monday was “Council consideration and action on the approval of claims.”

Council members approved more than half-a-million dollars in claims -- a near-record amount -- under that agenda item, reported Helen Barrett of the Alva Review-Courier.

The more than $536,500 in claims included more than $320,000 to Dobson Construction for work done at the airport, more than $48,000 to the Oklahoma Municipal Group insurance plan, and nearly $22,000 to the Alva Utility Authority.

But the public couldn’t have known that by reading the agenda prior to the meeting.

The purpose of the Open Meeting Act “to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry’s understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems . . . is defeated if the required notice is deceptively worded or materially obscures the stated purpose of the meeting,” the Court of Civil Appeals said. (Haworth, ¶ 8)

At an open government workshop in September, public officials were cautioned against “cryptic” agenda language. A public body should not try to hide what it will be doing at a meeting, said Gay Tudor,
chief of the Attorney General's General Counsel Section.

Another item on the Council’s agenda Monday was “Business Manager’s Report Items.” No information was listed under the report.

Last month, though, Tudor said the Attorney General’s Office prefers for such reports “to have bulleted points for items under the report.”

“Don’t try to hide items of business by putting it under ‘report,’” she warned.

The incomplete nature of Alva City Council agendas became apparent when Barrett contacted me about an action taken in apparent violation of the Open Meeting Act.

Barrett noted that the council, meeting as the Alva Utility Authority, entered into an executive session “to discuss the appraisal of 35 acres located in the Industrial Park” as noted on the agenda.

After returning to open session, however, Councilman Roger Hardaway made the motion to “authorize the city manager to continue negotiation with Mr. Ryerson on the property at the airport and the 35 acres at the industrial park.”

Barrett, a member of the FOI Oklahoma board of directors, challenged the legality of the executive session if the airport land had been discussed because that property wasn’t listed anywhere on the agenda.

According to Barrett’s article, Alva City Attorney Rick Cunningham said at the meeting that the vote on the airport property was under Agenda Item No. 5.

But, as Barrett correctly noted, that agenda item doesn’t mention Richard Ryerson’s airport property. It states, “Board consideration and action on the disposition of 35 acres located in the Industrial Park.”

The Open Meeting Act requires that each agenda “identify all items of business to be transacted” by the public body at the meeting. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 311(B)(1))

Alva's agendas didn’t do that.

Why require that agendas provide the public with actual notice of the business to be discussed and the action to be taken?

Because “without such information,” Attorney General Drew Edmondson has said, “the public is deprived of its right to be present and to know when decisions affecting the public are being made.” (2000 OK AG 7, ¶ 27)

The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals has said any act or omission that “has the effect of actually deceiving or misleading the public regarding the scope of matters to be taken up at the meeting” would be a “willful” violation of the Open Meeting Act. That includes any action exceeding the scope of action defined by the notice. (Haworth, ¶ 8)

A violation of the Open Meeting Act is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $500 and/or up to one year in the county jail for each count. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 314)

To top off matters, the city also violated a state statute requiring that agendas for regular meetings be posted on the city’s Web site. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 74, § 3106.2(A))

To respond to Barrett’s complaint, I had download the council and utility authority agendas. All I got were blank .pdf’s. A city official told Barrett the blank agendas were a technical glitch.

All in all, not a stellar night for open government in Alva.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.