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Open meetings laws eed some ‘teeth’

A meeting held two weeks ago at the State Capitol washistoric.

A meeting held two weeks ago at the State Capitol was historic.The meeting was between legislators and newspaper representativesfor the purpose of finding a solution that would allow more publicaccess to the inner workings of state government.

Following a public uproar this summer over a retirement perkgiven to legislators during a secret conference committee meetingat the end of last year’s session, House and Senate leaders havebeen searching for a way to save themselves from futureembarrassment.

The joint meeting, supported by Lt. Governor Amy Tuck and HouseSpeaker Tim Ford, allowed both groups to find common ground, and,hopefully, will lead to public access to conference committeemeetings next year. Currently, the legislature is exempt from stateopen meeting laws.

Both the Lt. Governor and the Speaker are to be commended fortheir desire to make state government more open to the public.

It is interesting, however, that despite the public uproar thissummer, local governmental authorities around the state are notquite so open. Reports of closed meetings in communities around thestate have escalated in recent months.

One reason for these closed meetings is that current state lawdoes not allow a penalty to public bodies or officials who arefound guilty of violating the law. Public officials who enjoyoperating under a cloud of secrecy can simply thumb their noses atanyone who disagrees.

Unlike state open record laws, which award legal fees tosuccessful plaintiffs and small fines for offending publicofficials, the open meeting laws leave the legal costs, which canbe significant, to the plaintiff regardless of the court’s ruling.The laws also provide no fine for officials found in violation.

In January as the legislature considers the opening ofconference committee meetings, hopefully they will go one stepfurther and add teeth to the open meetings laws, thereby putting achill on those who choose to conduct public business in secret.