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Updated : Attorney General finds open meetings violation
April 30, 2012 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis

The office of Attorney General Jon Bruning has determined Gering violated the state’s Open Meetings Law last November. The ruling stems from the Nov. 14, 2011 city council meeting, when members went into executive session to discuss a potential litigation issue, as printed in the meeting agenda that was available to the public.

The office of Attorney General Jon Bruning has determined Gering violated the state’s Open Meetings Act last November.

The law outlines specific instances when a governmental body may enter into closed session – such as real estate negotiations, personnel, potential litigation or labor negotiations.

The ruling stems from the Nov. 14, 2011 city council meeting, when members went into executive session to discuss a potential litigation issue, as printed in the meeting agenda that was available to the public.

Just prior to the executive session, council member Manuel Escamilla asked for the executive session to be amended to include “personnel.”

Escamilla’s concern came from a complaint he received from a city employee about Mayor Ed Mayo overstepping his authority by asking all departments to complete an inventory audit.

Mayo and council member Jill McFarland spoke to the media and were criticized by other council members who said closed sessions are confidential.

But Mayo and McFarland said the Open Meetings Act had already been violated because the definition of personnel doesn’t include elected officials such as the mayor. Also, once the specific reason for a closed session is advertised and printed in the agenda, it cannot be amended or changed.

In early January, the council asked the county attorney for a determination whether the city had violated the Open Meetings Law. The request was then forwarded to the Attorney General.

The April 26 letter from the Attorney General’s office identified three pertinent issues involving the closed session. First, the topic of the closed session to discuss “personnel issues” wasn’t on the agenda. Second, the motion to alter the closed session wasn’t proper. And third, the topic discussed was not appropriate for a closed session.

The letter stated, “All topics the Council will discuss must be on the agenda. For this reason, the Council violated the Open Meetings Act by discussing a matter in closed session that was not found on the agenda.”

The city council has conceded the point in response to the Attorney General’s determination and admitted the motion should have better defined the purpose of the closed session.

At its Dec. 12, 2011 meeting, the council discussed issues relating to governance of city affairs, the chain of command. They also modified ordinances related to the office of mayor to better comply with state statute.

In his letter, the Attorney General determined “the Council has cured its violation of the Open Meetings Act, and this situation does not require further inquiry or action by this office.”

Also at the Dec. 12 meeting, council passed a resolution, introduced by council member Larry Gibbs, asking state senators to consider legislation that would make violation of confidentiality a misdemeanor.

Gibbs said he had always assumed there was some kind of penalty for violation of confidentiality. But after consulting with the League of Nebraska Municipalities, he found there was none.



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