By Corinne Murdock |
On Wednesday, the Arizona House approved a bill to expand open meeting law to require enough seating for anticipated attendance and that the agenda include the time when the public may have physical access to the meeting place. The vote panned out evenly along party lines: 31-28, with all Democrats opposed and all Republicans in favor of expanding open meetings.
The legislation, introduced by State Representative John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills), included a civil penalty for leaders of the public body violating the seating and access time requirements.
When addressing the House Government and Elections Committee, Kavanagh said that governing bodies should anticipate controversial issues that would cause sudden spikes in public attendance. Kavanagh cited the Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) incident last year, in which the governing board closed the doors half an hour early to their meeting after enduring overwhelming public attendance the previous week. The legislator explained that he was turned away from attending the meeting because the room was full.
“This is simply meant to prevent a town council, or a school board, or anyone who has a controversial topic from suppressing public input by keeping the meeting in a tiny room so people can’t get in. And that happens,” said Kavanagh.
State Representative Jake Hoffman (R-Queen Creek) noted that he’d experienced something similar to Kavanagh’s SUSD experience. Hoffman recounted how Higley Unified School District (HUSD) officials refused to allow public attendance beyond 20 percent room capacity, turning away individuals attempting to participate.
Committee Democrats expressed concern that governing bodies wouldn’t be able to anticipate public attendance adequately. Kavanagh said that it would be up to citizens to file open meetings complaints if they suspected government officials weren’t adhering to reasonable accommodations as directed in this bill. He noted that the League of Arizona Cities and Towns wasn’t in opposition to this bill.
Minority Leader Reginald Bolding (D-Laveen) explained in his “no” vote that the bill’s intent was “noble,” but failed to spell out how government officials should anticipate public attendance to accommodate seating. State Representative Sarah Liguori (D-Phoenix) argued that limiting public access to open meetings was a matter of safety, citing the presence of COVID-19 and violence at school board meetings.