Dunn Bill Requires Increased Transparency And Access To Public Meetings

Dunn Bill Requires Increased Transparency And Access To Public Meetings

By Daniel Stefanski |

A bill to increase transparency across public bodies in Arizona is making its way through the Legislature, but all Democrats may not be on board with the proposed policies.

HB 2144, sponsored by Representative Tim Dunn, “specifies changes to public meetings and proceedings regulations,” including “requiring all public bodies to provide sufficient seating to accommodate the anticipated attendance of the deliberations and proceedings of a public body.”

The bill also requires: “the agenda of the public meeting to include notice of the time that the public will have physical access to the meeting place,” and “specifying that any head of public body that fails to include notice of the time that the public will have physical access to the meeting place is liable for a civil penalty outlined in statute.”

Representative Michael Carbone co-sponsored this legislation.

An amendment in the House Government Committee “removed the specific liability for the head of a public body,” and “exempted agendas of meetings through technological devices from providing the time the public will have physical access to the meeting place” – for example, Zoom and similar technological meetings.

On January 25, HB 2144 cleared Representative Dunn’s House Government Committee by a 6-3 vote, with one Democrat voting for the bill (Lydia Hernandez). Chairman Dunn indicated that the inspiration behind this piece of legislation stemmed from some government bodies around the state moving their meetings to smaller venues when controversial issues may have been before them. He noted that there could be an intentional motivation to block constituents from attending these meetings in some of these cases – hence the importance of increasing access and transparency for members of the public wishing to attend and participate in these sessions.

Democrat Representative Jennifer Longdon expressed concerns from her cities and other organizations bound by open meeting law about the definitions of some of the terms (“reasonable” and “knowingly”) outlined in the legislation. She voted no on the bill – as did two of her Democrat colleagues. All five Republicans on the committee voted in favor of the bill.

A representative from the Arizona Association of County School Superintendents was signed in to speak against the bill but did not address the committee. Representatives from the County Supervisors Association of Arizona and the League of Arizona Cities and Towns signed in as neutral for the bill.

Later in February, HB 2144 was unanimously approved by the House Rules Committee, with an 8-0 vote. It now awaits its fate with the entire House of Representatives body.

Daniel Stefanski is a reporter for AZ Free News. You can send him news tips using this link.

Lawmakers Hope To Make Reason For Secret Portion Of Public Meetings More Public

Lawmakers Hope To Make Reason For Secret Portion Of Public Meetings More Public

By Terri Jo Neff |

A bill introduced by nearly one dozen legislators to require public bodies to provide the public with more information before discussing public matters in private under the guise of seeking “legal advice” is being strongly opposed by the very public officials who can currently conduct many discussions in secret.

Rep. Beverly Pingerelli (R-LD21) and 10 co-sponsors of HB2804 want to amend two statutes related to public meetings, executive sessions, and legal advice. Their bill passed the House last week and is now assigned to two Senate committees where its attempt to ensure more transparency in public meetings has garnered resistance from nearly every city and town, several elected school superintendents, and the County Supervisors Association of Arizona.

A public body is allowed by law to hold an executive session for the discussion, consideration, or consultation of only nine types of matters. One is to obtain “legal advice with the attorney or attorneys of the public body.”

Some officials claim they need flexibility at any time during a public meeting to move into a non-public executive session to obtain legal advice on any item on the agenda. That is why many public bodies utilize a generic disclaimer on every meeting agenda advising that the members may convene an executive session during the meeting with no further notice.

However, many citizens and public-transparency watchdogs have complained in recent years that public bodies are misusing the legal advice clause to privately discuss a variety of issues which could -and should- be discussed in public.

And that is where HB2804 comes in. The first thing it does is limit the situations in which legal advice can be used as reason for an executive session to the other eight subject matters permitted to be discussed in an executive session.

The bill would also require meeting agendas that include specific notice of any executive session under the legal advice clause to note which of the eight subject matters apply to the agenda item.

Such changes are long overdue, according to Diane Douglas, who served as Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction from 2015 to 2018.
“The legal advice clause of the Executive Sessions statute -or the ‘get out of jail free’ clause as I call it- undermines the intent of Open Meeting Law,” Douglas told Arizona Daily Independent. “It should only be used very sparingly and only when a public discussion will compromise a negotiation, settlement, or an employee’s legally protected privacy.”

But Douglas says various public boards, commissions, committees, districts, as well as cities, towns, and counties currently end up discussing matters of public interest behind closed doors by “dragging an attorney in” even if the matters would otherwise be required to be discussed in public.

“Often times legal advice or discussion, that will not otherwise compromise a decision of the board, is of equal interest to the public being served,” Douglas said.

Douglas also notes there is already a simple solution for situations where an issue comes up during a meeting that requires legal advice, but an executive session has not been properly notice.

“Table the discussion and bring it back when proper executive session notice has been made,” she said.

The other eight types of subjects a public body is allowed to hold an executive session for include discussion, consideration, or consultation on matters of employment, assignment, or appointment; records exempt by law from public inspection; litigation and settlement discussions; contracts subject to negotiations; negotiations with employee organizations; international, interstate, city, town, tribal council or Indian reservation negotiations; school safety matters; and negotiations on the purchase, sale or lease of real property.

HB2804 would also require that any public body meetings related to the “goals and objectives” by which an officer, appointee, or employee of the public body will be evaluated “must be conducted in a public meeting.” However, any actual discussion or consideration about the person’s employment, assignment, or appointment would be done in private unless the person requests a public discussion.