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Commission wants open meeting laws update

The state Ethics Commission wants the Legislature to update and clarify the state's open meeting laws.

On Thursday, the commission unanimously endorsed a proposal to overhaul the Open Governmental Meetings Act. That act governs how public agencies provide notice of and conduct open meetings.

The laws were thrust into the spotlight following the state Board of Education's firing of state Superintendent Jorea Marple. The board is now facing a lawsuit claiming it violated the law when it initially fired Marple. 

While Thursday's Ethics Commission vote came after Marple's firing, the proposed changes to state code have been discussed for nearly a year.

State lawmakers considered a bill to make the changes during the last legislative session, but it failed to advance beyond the committee stage.

The most significant change the proposal makes deals with how state and local agencies handle emergency meetings.

Current law simply defines an emergency as something requiring "immediate official action." State code says agencies holding an emergency meeting simply have to file advance notice of the meeting "at any time prior to the meeting."

The new proposal would narrow the definition of an emergency.

Under the change, emergencies would be limited solely to unexpected events that pose threat to public health or safety, damage to public or personal property, or could cause substantial financial loss or harm to an agency.

The proposal would also require that local governments adopt similar standards. Currently, the law gives counties and municipalities more flexibility in drafting their own open meetings proposals.

The change also requires that notice of any emergency meeting be made "as soon as practicable," rather than at any time prior to the meeting.

The change would give some flexibility to state agencies for how they publish meeting notices.

Currently, agencies are required to publish meeting notices in the State Register five days before the meeting is held.

But Ethics Commission Executive Director Theresa Kirk said that requirement is outdated.

"It's my understanding like less than 50 hard copies of the Register are even sent out anymore because we've moved to an electronic age," Kirk said.

The Secretary of State publishes the State Register each Friday. Kirk said meeting notices have to be sent to the printer by the end of Wednesday each week for Friday publication.

Kirk said most people now use the Secretary of State's online meeting notices page to review upcoming meetings.

The recommended meeting law change would eliminate the State Register requirement and simply require agencies to have meeting notices uploaded to the online meeting notice page five days before the meetings occur.

"This just keeps up with changing technology," Kirk said.

The proposed changes did not directly address any of the specific issues that came up in the Marple case, which centered on officials adding Marple's firing to the agenda at the last minute.

But given the controversy, state Senate President Jeff Kessler said he would like for the Legislature to consider the changes and see if there is any way they can clear up confusion or ambiguity in the law.

"If it provides more clarification, then it's something I would consider examining, because there is some ambiguity apparently," Kessler, D-Marshall, said.

"It's better if we had some objective criteria in place and a catchall at the end so everyone knows what they can and cannot do," he said.

Commissioners also:

  • Approved a separate recommendation to change the state law governing lobbyist ethics training.
  • Currently, all registered lobbyists are required to receive training every two years. But officials said the two-year requirement is redundant because state ethics laws don't change very much over a normal two-year period.

    The new change would require lobbyists to receive training when they register and the Ethics Commission would update them of any changes to the law when they occur.

  • Approved an exemption allowing Kirk to pursue job opportunities in the private sector.
  • State ethics laws prohibit public officials from seeking jobs with firms or businesses that are under their regulatory control or those that have contracts with their agency.

    Commissioners reluctantly approved the request, saying they valued Kirk's work but understood her desire to move on to a new job.

    Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148.


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