Stillwater City Council removes 'new business' as agenda item

Stillwater City Council agendas will no longer include the item "new business," under an ordinance that councilors unanimously approved Monday.

The decision reportedly was to stop residents from addressing the council on issues not listed on the agenda.

It's not clear why such a change was needed because the term "new business" has a statutory definition that doesn't include public comment.

The state Open Meeting Act defines "new business" as “any matter not known about or which could not have been reasonably foreseen prior to the time of posting.” (
OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 311(A)(9))

Council members had expressed concern that "new business" had become a catch-all for speaking time on any subject, the Stillwater NewsPress reported.

But the statutory definition doesn't seem to give the public any right to speak at a council meeting because a 1999 attorney general opinion said audience members do not have a right under the Open Meeting Act or the First Amendment to speak on issues as part of a public meeting. (1998 OK AG 45. See also 2002 OK AG 44, ¶ 3)

The statute “nowhere provides for or guarantees citizens a right to participate in the governmental decisions being made at an open meeting,” state Attorney General Drew Edmondson said.

“The Act is designed to enable citizens to be present and view the workings of government at open meetings, but does not require that citizens become participants at an open meeting or that they have a right to be heard at an open meeting,” he said. (1998 OK AG 45, ¶ 2)

Stillwater City Attorney John Dorman said that in 20 years on the job, he had seen the statutory definition of "new business" met only once.

That's good. Because if news reports about the new ordinance are correct, the council won't be able address or decide any public business that legitimately arises in the 24 hours after the agenda is posted.

I'm relying on the media reports because the
council agenda gave only this explanation:
Ordinance No. 3110: An ordinance amending Chapter 2, Administration, Article II, City Commission, Division 1, Generally, of the Stillwater City Code, to amend Section 2-20, Order of the Business and Section 2-25, Public Addressing the Commission, declaring an emergency.

But agendas should be worded in “plain language, directly stating the purpose of the meeting, in order to give the public actual notice. The language used should be simple, direct and comprehensible to a person of ordinary education and intelligence,” the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals has said.

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 said. (Haworth Bd. of Ed. of Independent School Dist. No. I-6, McCurtain County v. Havens, 1981 OK CIV APP 56, ¶ 8)

In the spirit of open government, the Stillwater City Council should explain to voters in plain language what it's doing rather than relying only legalize in agenda items.

For other coverage of the council's decision: Council removes option to speak, Kenneth Higgs, The Daily O'Collegian, 9.21.10

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
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.