McAlester City Council closes meeting under exemption for union negotiations but discusses furloughs for all city employees and other budget woes

The McAlester City Council recently met behind closed doors to discuss unpaid furloughs for all 235 city employees and apparently other budget woes – all under the guise of discussing negotiations with employee labor unions.

Not all McAlester city employees are represented by labor unions. As the McAlester News-Capital pointed out, the furloughs cover city department heads, upper management and other employees who don’t belong to the police or fire unions.

The furloughs were among several actions approved by the council following the nearly two-hour executive session on Dec. 1, the newspaper reported.

None of the actions was listed on the agenda for the special meeting – even though the newspaper had reported days earlier that the council was expected to discuss possible furloughs during the closed session.

Some of the other actions also clearly went far beyond negotiations with labor unions. For example, the council voted unanimously to place on a future agenda a vote to modify the city budget to reflect some $353,000 in savings the city manager and department heads have achieved.

The council also voted unanimously to support an incentive plan for a “voluntary resignation” program for city employees.

And, the council approved a show of support for the city manager’s authority to invoke lay-offs if needed. As the newspaper noted, the city manager has the power to hire and fire “most” city employees.

According to the newspaper, the council and Acting City Manager Pete Stasiak can order the non-uniformed – i.e., nonunionized – employees to take the furlough days. Stasiak told the newspaper he planned to meet with the police and fire union members in an attempt to persuade them to also take the furlough days.

The council met in executive session under an Open Meeting Act exemption: “Discussing negotiations concerning employees and representatives of employee groups.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 307 (B)(2))

The state’s Municipal Employee Collective Bargaining Act also exempts from the Open Meeting Act “Negotiating sessions, including strategy meetings of municipal employers or exclusive bargaining representatives, …” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 11, § 51-213 (C))

Clearly, the council does not “negotiate” with department heads, upper management and nonunionized employees. And, based on the newspaper’s reporting, the furloughs apparently aren’t part of the city’s labor agreement with members of the police and fire departments. The story indicates that Stasiak will try to persuade them to take the furloughs, not enter into negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement.

Also, the council voted on items that officials seemed to know about well in advance. Those items should have been listed on the agenda as required by the Open Meeting Act. (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 305)

The statutory exemption was the sole wording listed on the agenda for the executive session. But the Open Meeting Act requires that the agenda also “identify the items of business and purposes of the executive session.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 311(B)(2)(a-c))

The council’s agenda did not give the public actual notice of the items of business and purpose of the executive session.

Public bodies are permitted – not required – to conduct closed-door sessions under the Open Meeting Act only for specific topics spelled out by the state Legislature.

In deciding if an executive session is warranted, “a public body should consider all the facts and circumstances surrounding the proposed executive session and the general policy of openness that underlies the Open Meeting Act should be afforded great weight,” said then-Attorney General Susan Loving in 1992. (1992 OK AG 23, ¶ 7) (emphasis added)

Because the Open Meeting Act was “enacted for the public’s benefit,” the Oklahoma Supreme Court said in 1981, the statute “is to be construed liberally in favor of the public.” (1981 OK 95, ¶ 7)

The Legislature’s goal in enacting the Open Meeting Act “was not simply to prevent or punish deliberate violations, but to restore sadly sagging public confidence in government, a goal which is hurt by every noncomplying meeting regardless of whether or not the noncompliance resulted from evil motives,” then-Attorney General Jan Eric Cartwright said in 1982. (1982 OK AG 212, ¶ 11)

The stated purpose of the Act is “to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry’s understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 302)

A 1980 attorney general opinion said, “The Open Meeting Act must be given a construction which will effectuate and not subvert the intention of the Legislature in facilitating an informed citizenry’s right to participate in government and understand why government acts affecting their daily lives are taken.” (1980 OK AG 215, ¶ 12)

Current state Attorney General Drew Edmondson said in 2000, “[A] governmental body must operate with such openness that the citizenry is informed of its activities.” (2000 OK AG 7, ¶ 30)

McAlester City Council members failed to do so when they hid from the public their nearly two-hour discussion of how to address the city’s budget problems. They failed to do so by not giving taxpayers adequate notice of what they intended to discuss and do.

No exemption exists to allow public bodies to discuss budget issues in secret. Other exemptions cannot be used as a subterfuge to conduct such discussions behind closed doors.

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.