The town says it will no longer be vague when describing items of public business it plans to discuss in private.
For more than a year, most of the council’s executive session items — topics that by law can be discussed by the board behind closed doors — have offered little to no specifics as to what will be discussed. Last week, for instance, there was an item on the town council agenda listed only as: “Personnel Matter,” which was described as “Discussion, consideration and possible approval regarding a personnel matter.”
The state Open Meetings Act includes some exemptions that give public bodies the right to discuss sensitive issues like employee problems, lawsuits or real estate negotiations in private. But the law also says agendas for public meetings must include “a list of specific items of business to be discussed or transacted at the meeting.”
According to the state Attorney General’s Open Government Division, that requirement applies to any agenda topic, including executive session items.
Randy Van Vleck, attorney from the New Mexico Municipal League, agrees. He told The Taos News it’s not enough for a municipal board to simply “parrot” the exemptions in the law without offering other details.
“That gives the public no notice of what they’re going to talk about,” Van Vleck said Tuesday (Dec. 1).
Van Vleck’s opinion is in synch with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Open Meetings Act Compliance Guide. The guide says the “specific items” part of the law is intended to “ensure that interested members of the public are given reasonable notice about the topics a public body plans on discussing or addressing at a meeting.”
The Compliance Guide goes on to say a public body “should avoid describing agenda items in general, broad or vague terms, which might be interpreted as an attempt to mislead the public about the business the public body intends to transact.”
Transparency advocates like Susan Boe, executive director of New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, say being clear about what a public body plans to discuss — even in private — gives the public fair notice. In the case of an executive session, Boe argued some details in the agenda are especially important. If the agenda description is vague, and the council retreats into closed session to talk, then the public really has no idea what was discussed, even after the fact.
Boe said if the public body is required to announce exactly what it plans to talk about privately, it will help keep them on topic so they don’t abuse that privilege.
Boe said governments like the town may not be doing anything nefarious or explicitly trying to trick the public, though she said they might be avoiding specificity in agenda items for fear that controversial topics might draw a crowd.
The decision to not include details in executive session agenda items was implemented shortly after Floyd Lopez was hired as town attorney last year. Lopez declined to comment for this story, though he did point to an example in the Attorney General’s Compliance Guide that includes vague language when describing an appropriate executive agenda item on a real estate transaction.
Regardless, the town says it will no do things differently.
In an email, Taos Town Manager Rick Bellis said, starting with the next council meeting, executive session items on the agenda will include the exemption, the “subject area,” and “generally identify the matter(s) to be discussed.”
In an interview, Taos Mayor Dan Barrone acknowledged the way the town was describing some agenda items was “a little too broad.” He said he was convinced the practice needed to be changed after asking about it at a training for public officials last month.