Open Meetings and Executive Sessions
House Bill 337
by Dawn Ballou, Editor, Pinedale Online
March 26, 2005
One of the things the media closely watches is the way public boards conduct public business and handle taxpayer dollars. There are many laws on the books that guide public boards in the way they must conduct business in order to be accountable to the public. It seems like there are mini battles every year with some boards over holding illegal executive sessions, withholding public documents when asked, and trying to sneak making business decisions through via behind-the-scenes e-mail debates rather than holding all discussions at open public meetings.
In the 2005 Wyoming legislature session, a bill was brought forward that would have had significant consequences in altering the rules for what may be discussed in executive sessions.
House Bill 337, sponsored by Republican Jerry Iekel of Sheridan, would have broadened the reasons a public board could close a meeting by defining another executive session rationale. HB 337 proposed allowing a board to go into executive session, closed to the public, to discuss marketing or pricing strategies of competitive ventures.
This bill was vigorously opposed by the Wyoming Press Association, the Equality State Policy Center and the League of Women Voters. They argued that the bill was very broad and would apply to all public agencies and boards.
"Opponents defended the open meetings law as a way to hold public officials accountable, and to help citizens understand and be involved in public policy. Opponents were troubled by the concept of a public body closing a meeting to talk about competing with the private sector," said the Equality State Policy Center.
According to EqualityState.org’s Legislative Accountability Project website report on this bill, "Under Wyoming's Open Meetings Act, a governing body of an agency may hold executive sessions closed to the public to discuss litigation, personnel matters, legally confidential matters, and a few other statutorily defined matters. HB 337 would have added the discussion of competitive ventures as another permitted executive session."
"We opposed this one vigorously, but we didn't have to do so for very long -- it died in a House committee" said Jim Angell of the Wyoming Press Association. "This bill came from the state's hospitals, who wanted to be able to go into executive session to discuss setting fees for services that they offered in competition with private medical practices. They also wanted to have executive sessions to discuss marketing strategies. They argued they needed to be able to discuss matters regarding business competition in a private setting so their competitive secrets wouldn't be spread out in the public."
Jim Angell said the arguments of the Wyoming Press Association were very simple:
1. Most hospitals are funded with public resources and, as such, the public needs to know what fee schedules are based on.
2. By their definition, public entities do not exist to compete with private enterprise.
The House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee defeated HB 337 unanimously, so it never even reached the House floor for serious debate.
This was a major win for the public. It is extremely important that those serving on public boards, handling public money, conduct their business in front of the public eye. Holding debates in open public meetings is an important part of the decision-making process so the public can hear discussions and opposing viewpoints about how public boards are spending taxpayer dollars.
HB 337 Wyoming State Legislature (PDF)
Equalitystate.org (HB 337)