Open Meetings Study Findings

Presented to the Jefferson County Commission October 3, 2019

Over the past several months, members of the LWV of Jefferson County surveyed how 12 local governmental boards and commissions are implementing the West Virginia Open Governmental Meetings Act.

The first step in the process was a community presentation in April by the West Virginia Ethics Commission staff on the provisions of the Act. We were very pleased at the turnout.

Following the presentation, we sent a written survey questionnaire to local governmental boards and commissions regarding compliance with the provisions of the Open Meetings Act. We followed up with a personal interview to explore how governmental bodies are going beyond the Open Meetings Act to educate and engage the public. All 11 boards and commissions (listed below) completed the survey and participated in the follow up interviews.

The LWV of Jefferson County is pleased to share the findings of our study with you. We are planning a community meeting as well but wanted to brief you first on our results and recommendations.

Boards and Commissions in Study:

  • Jefferson County Planning Commission
  • Emergency Services Agency
  • Historic Landmarks
  • Jefferson County Health Department
  • Solid Waste Authority
  • Farmland Preservation Board
  • Jefferson County Development Authority
  • Water Advisory Committee
  • Charles Town Utility Board
  • Jefferson County Parks and Recreation
  • Jefferson County Commission
  • Jefferson County School Board

Findings

Posting of meeting notices electronically should be required in Jefferson County. Most of the boards and commissions we interviewed use the web and in some cases, Facebook, to advertise meetings. This approach may not be possible in all parts of the state, but it is certainly possible in Jefferson County. For those without access to electronic devices, print media and posting of notices is important. The Act requires posting at “a public place.” However, when commissions or agencies are not located near the public (for example in Jefferson County, several agencies are distant from the courthouse), public access to posted notices is problematic.

Timely posting of minutes is crucial. The Open Meetings Act requires that once approved, minutes must be made available to the public within one business day. We noted confusion about what “reasonable” is. Some boards and commissions are behind in posting of minutes either due to staff overload or lack of staff. This issue needs to be addressed.

Websites vary in quality. Those agencies having in-house web master (like the Board of Health and the Charles Town Utilities Board) have very complete and up to date websites. Others are clearly deficient, primarily due to staffing issues. The Historic Landmarks Commission has found a creative way to maintain their website: an AmeriCorps volunteer. Any citizen appointed board or commission that is providing important input to the county commission and to community members should be provided web site services by the county commission and those sites should be reviewed at least quarterly for out of date information. We suggest that the County Commission have a help desk as a website resource for all county departments. Whenever the County Commission creates a Board, they should also provide sufficient funds/support for that board maintain a website and monitor their adherence to open meetings requirements.

Background information for agenda items should be available to the public. Making meeting agendas available to the public is an essential element of the Open Meetings Act. But if the public is to understand what the issues are and whether to attend a meeting in person or prepare testimony, background materials about the topic must be available. The county commission has a one-page agenda form that requires information about the agenda item. This is a good template for all commissions and boards to follow. Materials to be presented at the meeting should be available digitally whenever possible, especially when the meeting is to be streamed.

Methods of getting on the agenda vary. We were pleased that so many of the agencies are open to issues being placed on the agenda by community members. How to get on an agenda varies—from a phone call to the chairman, a request to staff or a request during public comment. Whatever the method, it should be explained on the web. The power to set the agenda is very important; the agency should be very clear how it is done.

A public comment period should be mandatory. Allowing public comment at the beginning of the meeting is not required by the Open Meetings Act. Public comments should be allowed at some time during public meetings.

Web sites should educate, not just notify. Finally, we would urge all boards and committees to use their websites not just to notify the public of meetings but to EDUCATE the public on items of community concern. For example, the county commission is embarking on a space needs study that will likely involve public approval of funding. This process should be featured on the web site right now so the public can follow the decision-making process. Other agencies and commissions should be encouraged to flag upcoming issues, concerns and studies so the public can anticipate upcoming decisions.

What Changes Are Needed To The Open Meetings Act?

Most of those interviewed saw no need for change. The most common request was to clarify when minutes should be made available once approved.

One comment from the County Commission interview bears highlighting. The Open Meetings Act applies to state agencies as well as to local government. However, state agencies do not always communicate with local officials about upcoming projects or policy decisions. This concern may not fall directly under the Open Meetings Act, but it certainly bears follow-up.

Many local commissions and boards are part of a state wide system administered by a state agency (Board of Health, Board of Education for example). A suggestion was made that the responsible state agency provide some forms or templates for agendas and websites that would make all 55 counties more uniform.

For further information, please contact:

Lyn Widmyer, Chair, Open Meetings Study
lynwidmyer@gmail.com
304 279 3201