Agenda says 'lease,' but Buffalo trustees vote to sell building
Trustees for the town of Buffalo were scheduled to discuss and consider "the renovation and leasing of the Duckwall's building" in town.
Instead, the trustees voted to sell the building, the Onside Buffalo blog notes.
Town trustees seem to have violated the state Open Meeting Act by taking an action not listed on the agenda.
The purpose of the Open Meeting Act is "to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry's understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 302)
And because the Open Meeting Act was "enacted for the public's benefit," the statute "is to be construed liberally in favor of the public," the state Supreme Court said in 1981. (Int’l Ass'n of Firefighters v. Thorpe, 1981 OK 95, ¶ 7)
Or as 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)
The state Supreme Court has said agendas must "be worded in plain language, directly stating the purpose of the meeting . . . [and] the language used should be simple, direct and comprehensible to a person of ordinary education and intelligence." (Andrews v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 29 of Cleveland County, 1987 OK 40, ¶ 7)
"To require otherwise would defeat the purpose of the Act," the unanimous court said. (Id.)
In 1981, the Court of Civil Appeals, using the statutory construction later approved by the Supreme Court in Andrews, nullified the hiring of a superintendent because the school board’s two posted agendas for the meeting had included only "Hiring principals. Discussion of hiring administrator. Interview a new administrator."
(Haworth Bd. of Ed. of Independent School Dist. No. I-6, McCurtain County v. Havens, 1981 OK CIV APP 56, ¶ 8)
"Use of the terms 'interviewing' and 'discussing the hiring' of an administrator in juxtaposition with 'hiring' of principals is misleading," the court said. "It creates more than an inference that the two agenda items are distinct, the latter being limited to 'discussion' and 'interview.'" (Id. ¶ 11).
The "School Board's actions were limited by its own notice to 'discussion' and 'interviews,'" the court said. "If, after interviewing [the candidate for superintendent], the School Board decided to hire him, this could only have been done by School Board calling a separate meeting with proper notice being given to the public of its intention to take that action." (Id. ¶ 13)
The court 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 agency action exceeding the scope of action defined by the notice. (Id. ¶ 8)
In Buffalo, the agenda said trustees would consider "leasing" the property, but they voted to sell it.
Leasing and selling are not the same.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines lease as "a contract by which one conveys real estate, equipment, or facilities for a specified term and for a specified rent; also : the act of such conveyance or the term for which it is made."
It defines selling as giving up property "to another for something of value (as money)."
Buffalo trustees failed to give the public actual notice of what action they would consider.
The Onside Buffalo blog seems correct when it concludes, "If you are looking for a textbook case of violating the Open Meetings Act look no further."
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
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.