Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tulsa city council chairman drops one-on-one meetings after newspaper raises concerns of Open Meeting Act violation

Tulsa City Council Chairman G.T. Bynum decided against one-on-one meetings with other councilors last week to discuss a personnel issue regarding Council Administrator Drew Rees, the Tulsa World reported.

Instead, the council discussed Rees' job performance in executive session during Thursday's meeting. No action was taken afterward, the newspaper reported. His probation period as council administrator has passed and a review is due, the newspaper said.

An executive session had been scheduled the previous week but was pulled because no name or unique title was listed on the agenda as is required for closed-door sessions on personnel issues.

Rather than reschedule the executive session with the required information, Bynum said he would instead meet individually with councilors to inform them of the personnel issue.

Bad idea.

The council may not meet one-on-one to decide an issue. That’s well-established law.

"Permitting a single member of the governing body to obtain a consensus or vote of that body by privately meeting alone with each member, would be to condone decision-making by public bodies in secret, which is the very evil against which the Open Meeting Act is directed," said then-Attorney General Jan Eric Cartwright. (1981 OK AG 69, ¶ 17)

In 2010, Bynum’s attorney, Ronald E. Durbin II, warned the council against using small group meetings to mediate issues with the mayor, saying such meetings would be "not only inadvisable but would also result in a clear violation of the OMA."

Durbin told them:
In this situation, it is obvious that any plan to use smaller numbers of Councilors would inevitably result in the need for those Councilors in attendance to share information and discuss settlement proposals with those Councilors not in attendance. This activity would be a clear violation of the OMA, and thus, only an executive session including a quorum of the Councilors should be utilized if any mediation session is to be closed to the public.
The council members really shouldn't be meeting one-on-one to discuss any issues. Tulsans are entitled to witness the council's discussions of policy.

Meeting one-on-one doesn't demonstrate a commitment to open government and erodes public trust. It would have been a bad habit for the new council to start.

What subject would have been next for such meetings? How long before council members were coming to a consensus through such meetings.

Bynum avoided a lot of headaches down the road by starting off on the right foot.

He told the Tulsa World that the one-on-one meetings were dropped in favor of a properly posted executive session on Thursday out of "an abundance of caution, and to avoid any appearance of impropriety."


The Open Meeting Act "is to be construed liberally in favor of the public" because the statute was "enacted for the public's benefit," the Oklahoma Supreme Court said in 1981. (Int'l Ass’n of Firefighters v. Thorpe, 1981 OK 95, ¶ 7)

The principle is "very simple," the state Court of Civil Appeals said that year. "When in doubt, the members of any board, agency, authority or commission should follow the open-meeting policy of the State." (Matter of Order Declaring Annexation, Etc., 1981 OK CIV APP 57, ¶ 18)

Sound advice for all public bodies.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Profesor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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