New council members learn ins and outs of meeting laws
February 2, 2023
Town attorney Pat Carpenter changed hats for an hour at Monday night's workshop to teach Heidi Humpal and Bob Stewart, neither of whom has held public office, their responsibilities as part of the standing council under the Wyoming Public Meetings Act. This training also refreshes the understanding of the law governing this facet of transparency and confidentiality for longer-standing members.
Carpenter provided written copies of said Act so the group, as a whole, could read and implement this law, saying, "This act does apply to municipalities. We do have to follow this act when we have any public meeting."
The Act covers everything from what constitutes a meeting to the requisites of executive session.
"A quorum [is] at least three of you, so any time three of you get together and discuss town business, technically, that is a public meeting," said Carpenter.
The attorney later explained that this includes electronic and phone/text communication, which also necessitate a notice of meeting allowing the public to listen. "We have to be very careful about having any discussions when there's a quorum."
The attorney emphasized the seriousness of this detail again: "You can't sit at the coffee shop and text each other back and forth and say we not having a meeting because we're not actually talking...that doesn't work; if you're doing it to avoid the act, it's a violation of the law."
The act does not ensure audience participation, though they may watch and listen. This law provides the mayor, as the presiding authority over meetings of the governing body, the authority to have those who disrupt the orderly meeting process, removed or the mayor may adjourn said meeting until another time or another location. This action, though, is not to last for more than the current meeting.
Carpenter discussed in detail the provisions of executive sessions – sequestered discussions that are found within the act.
"This is the exception to the public meetings act rule," he said. "You can only call an executive session if there's a motion...You cannot conduct business in executive session, so there's no voting, you have to come back out to conduct business; you have to identify which of [the lawful reasons provided] your discussion fits or you can't go into executive session."
Of the 12 acceptable reasons to go into this restricted meeting, the town falls only under a few.
"If there's an issue with town property, town right of ways, things of that nature, I or the police can talk to you about that; If we need to talk about [employment] discipline, we can call an executive session; terms of employment, if we're going to talk about wages...; matters involving litigation, if the town is suing or being sued; matter involving real estate...not the selling of property, but only the purchasing; safety and security planning, we could use that in several circumstances."
Carpenter went on to explain to council the importance of maintaining the secrecy of these meeting to ensure the very reason for the existence of this codicil within the act of protection of the town.
The final part of the act he addressed covers the overall act: "Anyone who knowingly or intentionally violates this act... could be fined up to $750 per [incident]... It's important we abide by the terms of the act."
After finishing the "down and dirty Wyoming Public Meetings Act" guide, and with a few more words of discussion, the attorney excused himself from the meeting.