Friday, October 1, 1999
Town counsel outlines legal boundaries for local officials
Proclaiming, "I'm here to make your life easier as town officials," town counsel Paul DeRensis began a seminar September 23 to sensitize those who work for the town to issues of law, decorum and courtesy in performing their public roles. Approximately 15 officials attended the meeting.
The seminar covered the open meeting law, public hearings and decisions, public records, and the conduct of board members in and out of meetings. DeRensis relayed a lot of rules, but counsel emphasized that all of the requirements merely safeguard that public officials continue to serve the public interest. He reminded them that they are always accountable to the public for their actions.
Every meeting must be open to the public, with proper notice. DeRensis handed out a list of exceptions which can be discussed in private, but added, "The ordinary committee does not have to go into executive session very often."
The most important thing to remember about conduct during meetings is to maintain decorum. "The role of government officials is to give a fair hearing." With respect to argumentative applicants, DeRensis advised, "You have to keep your cool." Disagreements among board members, said DeRensis, require "a judicial temperament."
There is no legal requirement for an agenda, but common practice is to operate a meeting with one so people know what will be discussed and can attend if interested. The board chairman has discretion to allow discussion of items not on the agenda but may defer to give others not in attendance an opportunity to participate. Executive sessions do not have to be listed on an agenda, but DeRensis thought that it would be courteous to give notice of an intended executive session so that the public does not waste time showing up for a closed meeting.
An open mind
With respect to bias, DeRensis advised, "Don't walk into a meeting with your mind made up." DeRensis also warned not to listen to evidence outside the public meeting. No one has an opportunity to respond to this type of communication and the grounds for a decision can get confused. "The battle should be at the meeting and not in a coffee shop," said DeRensis.
In response to a question about board members in a small town frequently running into each other, DeRensis advised that the open meeting law does not apply to chance encounters and social gatherings. Rolling meetings, where one member contacts each member individually and reaches agreement, are not allowed, however, and e-mail may pose a violation too. Communication outside a meeting can provide information but cannot be deliberative in nature, summarized DeRensis. Counsel also warned against the "esprit d'escalier" where board members reach consensus on the way to the parking lot after a meeting.
Decisions must be based on evidence which must be described fully in the minutes. DeRensis encouraged boards to circulate their minutes among all the other regulatory boards in town because it is common for an applicant to make the rounds to many boards in the course of a project. The minutes are public records which should not be kept at home. "Recognize that you are custodians of public property," said DeRensis.
"As long as we continue to serve the public, we have a right to continue in office," said DeRensis. Referring to the rules which aim for accountability of public officials, DeRensis summarized, "The whole process is there to maintain an open government."
An audiotape of the two-and-a-half-hour seminar was made by Paul Gill and will be made available for circulation at the Gleason Public Library.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito