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Sunday, July 8, 2007

Why Risk Your Municipal Attorney Job When There's No Downside to Violating the Open Public Meetings Act?

The Tri-City Herald's piece on why local governments often close public meetings in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act hits on two often overlooked points: first, many municipal attorneys representing local governments are afraid they'll lose their jobs if they say "You can't do this," and second, there is really no downside to violating the OPMA so who cares.

The Tri-City Herald piece thoroughly covers the point about terrified municipal attorneys but only mentions the point about the lack of consequences for violating the OPMA. Here's some more detail on the latter point.

Consider the decision making process for a local government looking at whether to violate the Open Public Meetings Act.

The upside of closing the meeting is that you get to talk about the public's business without the pesky public finding out about it. Whew. What a relief--you won't lose any votes in the next election over whatever it is you were supposed to discuss in public.

The downside is pretty remote. Each one of the following eight things must happen in order for you to suffer a measly $100 consequence:
  1. maybe a citizen will recognize an OPMA violation has occurred (but since the discussion happens behind closed doors it's pretty hard to get caught),
  2. maybe the citizen has the money to hire an attorney to file suit,
  3. maybe the citizen can find an attorney who knows anything about the OPMA (only a handful of attorney in the state know this law),
  4. maybe you can't grind the citizen down in endless court proceedings and costs (your legal costs are paid by taxpayers so why would you care),
  5. maybe the judge knows the details of the OPMA and doesn't think it's a silly law that gets in the way of "efficient" government decision making,
  6. maybe you lose the case,
  7. maybe the judge awards some of the citizen's attorneys fees because you lost (but don't worry because tax money will pay that),
  8. maybe the judge awards the citizen the $100 penalty that you must pay on your own for a "knowing" violation. But relax. This $100 "downside" only happens if the the citizen succesfully made it through each and every one of these eight gauntlets. Besides, it's only $100--the price of a few yard signs in your next election--and you got to discuss a "sensitive" issue without those pesky citizens around.

What's not to love about the current Open Public Meetings Act? If you're the government, that is.