There is a lawful protocol government bodies must follow when they feel the need to go behind closed doors to discuss issues out of view of the public.
It’s called the West Virginia Open Governmental Meetings Act.
The West Virginia Ethics Commission is fairly specific about how meetings should be conducted and the proper way to convene an executive session.
In many counties, there is very little oversight, so public bodies get used to going behind closed doors whenever they want and for whatever reason. It is, of course, the job of the media, particularly newspapers, to point out when proper practices aren’t being followed.
The WV Ethics Commission clearly states, “A governing body may go into an executive session for any of the reasons set forth in the Open Meetings Act at W.Va. Code § 6-9A-4.”
The code lists specific reasons; it isn’t a blank check.
According to the Ethics Commission, “Some common grounds for going into an executive session are to discuss personnel matters or pending litigation; to consider matters involving the purchase, sale or lease of real property, or to plan or consider an official investigation.”
The Ethics Commission also makes it clear a member of the governing body must make a motion to go into executive session. The motion must state in plain language the grounds for convening an executive session.
For example, a member may state that he or she is moving to go into executive session based upon the personnel exception. It is not necessary to cite the specific code provision.
“A governing body may go into executive session to discuss only matters that appear on the meeting agenda.” This is an important point.
In other words, the item the governing body plans to discuss in secret must be an item on the agenda for that meeting. The government can’t go into a private meeting to talk about items that aren’t listed on the agenda for that meeting.
According to the Ethics Commission, “Not only must the item be on the agenda, the agenda item must be descriptive enough to put the public on notice of the nature of the matter being discussed regardless of whether it will be discussed in an open session or executive session.”
You have to tell the public what you’re talking about and it has to be specific. You can’t just say “personnel” or “a lawsuit.”
For example (and this is a specific example from the Ethics Commission), an agenda item to discuss pending litigation may read, “Discuss pending lawsuit of Smith v. Jones with legal counsel.”
Once again, generic agenda items such as “Discuss pending litigation” are too vague to adequately put the public on notice as to the matter to be discussed.
Unfortunately, I was at a meeting of the Jackson County Commission in which the county attorney, Eric Holmes, said he needed an executive session. And that’s all he said - he needed an executive session.
He never said why or what would be discussed. He didn’t say if the item they were going to be discussing was even on the agenda for that meeting.
The public didn’t even get a “vague” description.
The Commission simply voted to go behind closed doors and talk about, well, who knows?. And it was a unanimous vote without hesitation.
I’m sure the newspaper will receive phone calls about this article. That’s fine. Sometimes people get upset with us when we do our job. It comes with the territory.
But the public needs to be aware when government bodies pull the blinds to conduct business. And government organizations need to remember they’re dealing with taxpayer money. As a result, everything they do is subject to scrutiny by the public.
If we’re going to continue to fund our local governments with our tax money, we need to be getting a fair return on our investment. And it isn’t fair when our government officials decide we are better off not knowing.
And the fact is, we shouldn’t have to remind them to do what’s right. They should already be doing things above-board and by the book. This is why we provide them the funds to hire the attorneys who tell them how to conduct business within the confines of the law.
I encourage people to attend any and all public meetings they can. We elect our government officials to work on our behalf, so it is ultimately our responsibility to make sure our interests are being represented.