In a public meeting described as "strained," the Taylor Mill City Commission recently focused on constituent concerns about a year old ordinance establishing in person "caucus" meetings at which the commission members and staff discuss, in advance of the voting meeting, the public business with which they are entrusted.
City of Taylor Mill Commission “caucus” meetings
The commission's "caucus” meetings -- conducted on the fourth Wednesday of each month at 10:00 a.m. — offer the mayor, commissioners, and staff the opportunity to thoroughly vet the issues before them. The city administrator describes the "caucus" meetings as "an effective way for [him] to communicate with [the mayor and commissioners] at the same time" without running afoul of the open meetings law. Their apparent purpose is to avoid protracted discussions at its regular meeting that otherwise extend late into the night.
Northern Kentucky Tribune reporter Patricia A. Scheyer advises us that the "caucus" meetings are open to the public. They are conducted in person and not video-teleconferenced or recorded and archived.
Public comment is not, we are told, permitted. The rationale supporting the commission’s decision to exclude public comment turns on the potential that the comments might deviate from the agenda — a statutory prohibition at special meetings but not regular meetings.
The controversy and the debate
Taylor Mill residents -- seeking to be heard on a controversial firehouse issue -- object to the 10 a.m. “caucus" meeting time and the Commission's decision to exclude public comment.
A divided commission vote on an ordinance to eliminate the "caucus" meetings shocked commission members who expected unanimous approval.
One commissioner who opposed the ordinance explained that he "got a lot of feedback saying we were trying to hide something." He agreed to "do away with the caucus if we would have another regular meeting. I don’t want somebody coming up to me saying, what are you trying to hide? I’m not trying to hide anything."
Another commissioner opposed to the ordinance ending "caucus" meetings emphasized that "the caucus is important. People in the public can hear what is going on in the city prior to the main meeting. I think it is important for us to have a discussion because my ideas are not always the best and neither is anyone else’s. If we don’t have those discussions we end up with not the best for the city.”
A frustrated commissioner who supported the ordinance commented, "We can have those discussions in an open meeting where everybody is here and it is televised. People have the ability to speak up and say their say so. In the caucus meetings you don’t want to let people talk, you don’t want it to be advertised. In the last caucus meeting you had your back to the people.”
Another opponent questioned, "Why ten o’clock in the morning," noting that most people are working at that hour. Why not, he asked, have another meeting at 7 o’clock in the evening?
The dispute was not resolved. The city commission will therefore conduct a "caucus" meeting later this month per its regular schedule.
Regular schedule = regular meeting
Those two words contain at least a partial solution to this dispute.
"All meetings of a quorum of the members of any public agency at which any public business is discussed or at which any action is taken by the agency, shall be public meetings, open to the public at all times."
Although the Kentucky attorney general recently hinted at a significant narrowing of the term "meeting" to include in-person meetings only, this provision must be read in tandem with the open meetings definition of "meeting." "All gatherings of every kind, including video teleconferences, regardless of where the meeting is held, and whether regular or special and informational or casual gatherings held in anticipation of or in conjunction with a regular or special meeting."
What Taylor Mill has referred to as a "caucus" meeting is often referred to as a "work session" in other communities. It is an open meeting because it is a gathering of a quorum of the members of the Taylor Mills Commission to discuss public business held in anticipation of a regular meeting.
["Caucus" meetings in the Kentucky legislature are directly tied to party affiliation and are closed to the public -- the Democratic or the Republican Caucus. These state legislative caucus meetings may be legally permissible by narrow exception to the open meetings law, but they are absurdly bad “do as we say, not as we do” optics and a deeply offensive disservice to the public's right to know.]
There are only two kinds of meetings under the open meetings law: regular (scheduled) meetings and special (called) meetings. The "caucus" meetings in Taylor Mill are regular meetings because they are conducted at specified times and places provided for in "a schedule of regular meetings" adopted by ordinance and available to the public -- and, ideally, prominently posted on the Taylor Mill website.
By law, no further notice is required for regular (scheduled) meetings. Nor is an agenda, but public agencies often provide both. The open meetings law establishes the legal floor -- that which an agency must do to meet minimum legal requirements — but it does not establish the ceiling -- that which the agency can do to enhance public access.
In contrast to special meetings, the open meetings law does not limit "discussions and action" at a regular meeting "to items listed on the [special meeting] agenda.”
Taylor Mills concerns in this regard are unnecessary.
Recommendation for improvements
A portion of the regular meeting set aside for public comment is a common feature of regular meetings -- although, again, the open meetings law does not require public comment and there is no recourse under the law for agencies that refuse to permit public comment or place limitations on it.
For clarity's sake, the Taylor Mill Commission should:
•rechristen the "caucus" meetings "work sessions;"
•repeal the defective ordinance, enact a new ordinance governing "work sessions" that includes the regular monthly schedule (time and place of the work sessions); and
•seriously consider inclusion of a portion of the newly christened “work session” for public comment. Once again, nothing restricts discussions at regular meetings to agenda topics, and these work sessions are regular meetings.
To address the arguably “inconvenient” time during which the in-person "work sessions" are conducted, Taylor Mills should live video-teleconference them, as well as record and archive them on the city website, to expand even more the public’s right to know. The commission should consider a legal mechanism for submission of written public comments to be read into the meeting record.
Ultimately, the 10:00 a.m. meeting time conflicts with some residents’ schedules. But no time of day — both the attorney general and the courts have recognized — is convenient to everyone.
In Knox County v. Hammons, the Kentucky Supreme Court observed:
“Kentucky's Open Meetings Act does not impose upon government agencies the requirement to conduct business only in the most convenient locations at the most convenient times. The intent of the open meetings statutes is to ensure that government business is not conducted in secret, that the public is adequately notified of the time and nature of government proceedings, and that interested citizens be afforded the opportunity to participate in such proceedings. In short, the open meetings statutes are designed to prevent government bodies from conducting its business at such inconvenient times or locations as to effectively render public knowledge or participation impossible, not to require such agencies to seek out the most convenient time or location.”
This is a tough nut to crack unless the commission will invest in live video-teleconferencing and in preserving a recording of the meetings in its website archives. The commission will find it a monetary investment that pays off in public relations dividends.
A final recommendation
While the Taylor Mill Commission is focused on strict compliance with the open meetings law, the members should turn their chairs around so that they face their constituents at every public meeting — regular or special. Officials with their “back(s) to the people” risk an obvious open meetings challenge based on failure to “provide meeting room conditions, including adequate space, seating, and acoustics, which insofar as is feasible allow effective public observation of the public meetings.” This statutory duty extends to the ability to see and hear all meeting participants and facing the public is an easy fix.
In all things public meetings related, the lodestar must remain conduct aimed at maximizing openness and public participation. Credit is due the Taylor Mill City Commission for focusing on the public’s right to know — and not self-serving political posturing.