Shining Light on the Sunshine Law
Also known as The Open Governmental Meetings Act.
Open meeting laws, also called sunshine laws, require that, with notable exceptions, most meetings of government agencies and regulatory bodies be open to the public, along with their decisions and records. The statute in West Virginia was enacted to ensure that the proceedings of all public agencies are conducted in an open and public manner, so that the people may be informed about the actions of their governments and retain control over them.
The Act applies to all State, county, and municipal administrative or legislative units of government, including their departments, agencies, committees, boards, and commissions. It does not apply to the courts.
West Virginia's law requiring meetings of governing bodies to be open to the public has grown stronger since it was first enacted in 1975. The Legislature revised the Open Governmental Proceedings Act in 2013. This revision defines emergency meetings and requires meeting notices to be filed on the Secretary of State's website at least five business days prior to the meeting.
So, for example, if the City of Glenville has an ordinance that notes how and where their meeting agendas will be posted, it might seem they are in compliance. However, posting the agenda on the door of the mayor’s office on Friday afternoon-evening for a Monday evening meeting is not in compliance with the five-day rule, which specifically notes that weekends and holidays cannot be counted. Organizations are meant to operate in the spirit of informing the public to the best of their abilities before and after public meetings.
Extensive revisions were also made in 1999 to ensure that governing bodies do not exclude citizens from their deliberations and their actions. Although the Act has exceptions allowing executive sessions for governing bodies to discuss individual personnel, law enforcement, contract and some legal matters (and nothing more), the premise of the Act is that decisions affecting the public are made in the open, and not behind closed doors.
So, for example, if the Glenville city council repeatedly goes into executive sessions to discuss “finances” (i.e. their use of public funds?) this is a clear violation of the Sunshine Laws. Ironically, the local news reporter has never called them out on this common practice of illegally shutting her (and us) out.
Here is how the West Virginia Legislature opens our state’s version of the federally mandated Open Meeting laws:
The Legislature hereby finds and declares that public agencies in this state exist for the singular purpose of representing citizens of this state in governmental affairs, and it is, therefore, in the best interests of the people of this state for the proceedings of public agencies be conducted openly, with only a few clearly defined exceptions. The Legislature hereby further finds and declares that the citizens of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the governmental agencies that serve them. The people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments of government created by them.
Open government allows the public to educate itself about government decisionmaking through individuals' attendance and participation at government functions, distribution of government information by the press or interested citizens, and public debate on issues deliberated within the government.
Public access to information promotes attendance at meetings, improves planning of meetings, and encourages more thorough preparation and complete discussion of issues by participating officials. The government also benefits from openness because better preparation and public input allow government agencies to gauge public preferences accurately and thereby tailor their actions and policies more closely to public needs. Public confidence and understanding ease potential resistance to government programs.
In the past year, while discussing the issues developing at the Gilmer County School Board meetings, I heard a community leader note, “no one knows what Robert’s Rules are anymore, they change all the time.” Robert’s Rules of Order are the standard rules of government meeting procedures in America. They were designed to maintain control at public meetings, ensure accountability, and allow for public input. Every elected official serving the public should know The Open Governmental Proceedings Act and Robert’s Rules of Order.
I also read in the local newspaper that when the local librarian (me) reached out to three board members to garner their support in financially supporting the public library, that library board members were informed that this was “improper procedure.” And here I thought citizens (especially those who vote) had the right to speak with their elected officials about their concerns and issues. At least that’s what my school system taught in basic government and civics classes…
Our communities just received the biggest federal financial windfall since 1933. Gilmer County Schools was allocated $3,746,571.13, the City of Glenville allocated $600,000, and Gilmer County Commission allocated $1,519,526. (I don’t want to pick fights in too many counties at once, so if you are looking for your school, city, or county, follow the same links.) These governmental entities do not get to decide what you do or do not need to know about how they are spending these funds.
There are restrictions and guidelines on how Recovery Funds must be spent. An online pdf file issued by the U.S. Treasury notes the following allowable uses for these funds:
Support Public Health Response - Fund COVID-19 mitigation efforts, medical expenses, behavioral healthcare, and certain public health and safety staff.
Replace Public Sector Revenue Loss - Use funds to provide government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue experienced due to the pandemic.
Water and Sewer Infrastructure - Make necessary investments to improve access to clean drinking water and invest in wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.
Premium Pay for Essential Workers - Offer additional support to those who have and will bear the greatest health risks because of their service in critical infrastructure sectors.
Address Negative Economic Impacts - Respond to economic harms to workers, families, small businesses, impacted industries, and the public sector.
Broadband Infrastructure - Make necessary investments to provide unserved or underserved locations with new or expanded broadband access.
As you consider the candidates in the upcoming local elections, I suggest you contemplate three things:
Will this person work in the spirit of and help enforce the Open Governmental Proceedings Act in our community? Will they ensure the agendas are available at least five days prior and refrain from voting on any measure not listed on the agendas?
Will this person learn, abide by, and help enforce Robert’s Rules of Order during their public meetings? Ensuring that citizens registered for the public comments section of the meeting be given at least five minutes of uninterrupted speaking time? Refusing to allow meetings to be taken into Executive Session for discussions that don’t qualify?
Can and will this person responsibly and appropriately make significant financial decisions that consider the long-term benefits for the community? Can they create and develop a long-term vision for our future and use these funds within the parameters set to improve our quality of life? Can they budget? Can they stretch a dollar? Can they count?
Following the Black Plague in France, the country was changed and unstable. However, these growing pains and hard times resulted in The Renaissance - a revival of or renewed interest in the arts, in living. From Britannica:
To the scholars and thinkers of the day, however, it was primarily a time of the revival of Classical learning and wisdom after a long period of cultural decline and stagnation.
Education during the Renaissance was mainly composed of ancient literature and history, as it was thought that the classics provided moral instruction and an intensive understanding of human behavior.
I think we are due for a renaissance. I also believe these federal Recovery Funds could help make it happen for us. Our elected officials need to be dedicated to keeping the public involved in the decisions made for spending these funds and allowing the public to keep them accountable for those decisions by discussing them in open meetings according to the standards set and accepted by our American Democracy.
Let’s hope, this round, we elect representatives who are forward-thinking, and not status quo. The way it has always been done is not good enough.
Respectfully in my humble opinion,
(Editor & Publisher of Two-Lane Renaissance.)
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