As The Inter-Mountain celebrates Sunshine Week, we plan to highlight local agencies that operate openly and with transparency, as well as instances when public information has been harder to come by, and officials have been reluctant to let the public know what was going on behind closed doors.
Today we put the spotlight on one local governmental body that has made tremendous efforts recently to be open and transparent: Elkins City Council, which, along with Mayor Van Broughton, is so committed to open government that it brought in an expert last year to talk about the Open Meetings Law.
C. Joan Parker, the executive director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission, spoke at Elkins City Council's June 6 meeting about open meetings and ethics laws.
Among the tips she passed on were:
Councils, commissions and boards of education can vote on motions only during public meetings they attend in person.
"No written votes, no secret votes, no proxy votes," Parker said, stressing that votes cannot be taken during executive sessions.
Speaking of executive sessions, Parker said elected officials cannot go into executive session for issues that are not on the meeting's agenda. The reason for taking the issue into executive session - because it's a personnel matter, for instance - must also be printed on the agenda.
Once in an executive session, officials can only talk about the issue on the agenda. Parker warned against officials sliding from one topic to another behind closed doors.
"You want to be careful about doing too much in executive session, because people will get suspicious," Parker said, pointing at the only reporter in the room.
Although Parker has a sense of humor, she assured council members the Open Meetings Law is no joke. Officials who violate the laws can be subject to public reprimand, including a fine of up to $5,000 per offense.
She also warned that officials who intentionally violate the Open Meetings Law can be prosecuted. Even unintentionally violating the law can lead to officials being sued, Parker said.
Broughton said he and other city officials invited Parker to the meeting because three new council members had recently taken office.
"We just want to make sure we're doing everything the right way," Broughton said.
We commend Broughton and Elkins City Council for caring enough about their constituents to want to conduct their meetings "the right way." We believe that attitude could be beneficial if it spread among elected officials across our region.