(Copyright 2017 James E. Ducey. All rights reserved)
The Cherry County Planning and Zoning Board violated the Open Meetings Act during their morning meeting on July 21st at the commissioner’s room at Valentine.
The three items which were violations are indicated in Section 84-1412 of the Act.
The first and most egregious violation was of subsection 1, which states: “…the public has the right to attend and the right to speak at meetings of public bodies …”
There was no comment period item on the agenda and there was no opportunity given to allow public comments by attendees.
This is especially problematic because Gary Swanson stated at the previous meeting of the board in early July that public comment would not be allowed at their next meeting. Despite my objections at that time that this would violate the Open Meetings Act and with a strident request to the board that this objection be entered into the public record, this statement was not corrected, nor was any subsequent action taken by board chair Jim Buer. These two board members and everyone on the board was told that to not allow public comments would be a violation of the Open Meetings Act.
Buer stated I should talk to Eric Scott, the county attorney. Following a meeting with the attorney there was a better understanding on how to deal with any potential violations.
A subsection 4 of the Act states: “Any member of a public body who knowingly violates or conspires to violate or who attends or remains at a meeting knowing that the public body is in violation of any provision of the Open Meetings Act shall be guilty of a Class IV misdemeanor for a first offense and a Class III misdemeanor for a second or subsequent offense.”
Therefore, each member of the board present on July 21st knowingly violated the Open Meetings Act, especially since each of them had been present at the meeting earlier in the month and heard the notice that to not allow public comment would be a violation. This means there has been a legal offense by eight members of the board, including messrs. Billings, Buer, Ericksen, Lee, Mathis, Pabst, Swanson and Wheeler.
Another pertinent subsection states that “Public bodies shall make available at the meeting or the instate location for a telephone conference call or videoconference, for examination and copying by members of the public, at least one copy of all reproducible written material to be discussed at the open meeting.”
There was no public copy available in the meeting room of a) the meeting agenda, and b) the minutes, so there were two distinct, additional violations. Photocopies of both items were however given to members of the board by the county zoning administrator.
Just before adjournment of the meeting – with an insistence to speak – a formal, verbal objection was made with a request that it be entered into the public record. This was personally done to comply with an annotation to Sec. 84-1412, which states: “To preserve an objection that a public body failed to make documents available at a public meeting as required by subsection (8) of this section, a person who attends a public meeting must not only object to the violation, but must make that objection to the public body or a member of the public body.”
This clause was read in its entirety to ensure that the board members and public present understood the complaint. The objection was told to the eight members of the board that were present, as well to the more than ten members of the community present. The entire meeting was videotaped by an attendee so there is an obvious record.
Because of these violations, there is an opportunity to file a civil law suit as Section 84-1414, subsection 1 allows recourse: “Any motion, resolution, rule, regulation, ordinance, or formal action of a body made or taken in violation of the Open Meetings Act shall be declared void by the district court if the suit is commenced within one hundred twenty days of the meeting of the public body at which the alleged violation occurred.” This language is reinforced in subsection 3.
Subsection 2 states that the “… county attorney of the county in which the public body ordinarily meets shall enforce the Open Meetings Act.” This would be Mr. Scott in Cherry county.
It also needs to be known that despite multiple and repeated requests by some meeting attendees for a sign-in sheet, both the planning and zoning board and county commissioners continue to disregard this means of getting into the official record the names of people that have taken the time to be involved in the public discourse. The excuse given is that this is a courtesy not a legal requirement. It is a request which elected public officials apparently prefer to ignore. At multiple meetings, an attendee has personally gotten together a sign-in sheet and spread it around so that public involvement would be documented.