Open meeting, closed minds: Henderson vote did not follow spirit of the law

We were right. They were wrong. That’s about all the satisfaction we’ll get.

In July the Review-Journal filed an Open Meeting Law complaint with the attorney general’s office over the method used by the Henderson City Council to select a new councilmember to replace Andy Hafen, who had been elected mayor. To winnow the 14 candidates for the post the four councilmembers on July 8 used a series of secret, unsigned ballots. No one at the meeting protested.

Only July 13, I sent the letter to the AG. On July 21, the city attorney told the council of our complaint and informed them that, should our complaint be sustained by the attorney general, any votes by the newly selected councilmember, Debra March, in the interim "could be in doubt." So the council signed the previously secret ballots and recertified the selection.

In a Nov. 4 opinion, Deputy Attorney General George Taylor agreed the process violated the law, but since the council took a Mulligan everything was fine and their action did not warrant so much a mild scolding.

In my complaint, I suggested the council’s action violated the "letter and spirit of the Open Meeting Law," because the procedure kept the public in the dark as to their representatives’ assessment of the qualifications of the various candidates. The candidates each addressed the council but there was no discussion whatsoever of their merits.

Taylor wrote: "The OML (Open Meeting Law) does not require verbal discussion or assessment of candidates under this selection process. The absence of deliberation before an action vote would normally cause concern that the public body’s vote was pre-arranged out of public earshot.  However, this selection process was conducted entirely in the open. No doubt, each Council member kept his own deliberations to himself and quite capably marked his ballot. The absence of deliberation during this phase of the selection process was not a violation of the OML."

Letter of the law maybe, but not the spirit.

The law states: "In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that all public bodies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly."

To follow those "deliberations" in Henderson, you’d have to be telepathic.



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