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Appeal planned in dispute over small-group meetings

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    NMU         NEVADA         Freedom of Information         Feb 4, 2000    

Appeal planned in dispute over small-group meetings

  • The state’s highest court will be asked to decide whether the Reno City Council violated open meetings laws by meeting in groups too small to generate quorums.

The city of Reno is appealing a trial court decision that found a city commission in violation of the state open meeting law for meeting secretly in small groups with city staff members.

The City Council voted 6-1 in mid-January to appeal the decision to the Nevada Supreme Court in Carson City. The Nevada Press Association has announced plans to file a brief supporting the trial court decision.

Explaining the city’s reasons for appealing, Mayor Jeff Griffin told the Associated Press: “There are two opposite district court decisions on cases where the facts are almost completely similar. And we also have opinions from the attorney general that we have not violated the open meeting law.”

Washoe County District Judge James Hardesty found otherwise, ruling last December that government agencies cannot sidestep the Open Meeting Law by holding meetings that do not have quorums.

For purposes of the open meetings law, a “constructive” quorum will be recognized — and the meetings made public — whenever a majority of various board members meet with the same agency staff to discuss the same topics on the same day, Hardesty ruled..

The case is part of a long-running battle between the city and groups interested in preserving the Mapes Hotel, a vacant, 53-year-old downtown landmark that is listed on the register of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Preservationists had charged that the city’s Redevelopment Agency, which acquired the hotel in 1996, violated the Open Meeting Law when its board members met in small groups with the agency’s staff to privately discuss various plans for the hotel. The agency ultimately decided to demolish the hotel.

Claiming that such meetings were necessary to facilitate frank discussions between board members and agency staff, the agency argued that the open meetings law applied only to meetings where a quorum of board members is physically present at the same time.

Hardesty, however, said the open meetings law applies to a “constructive quorum,” such as when board members are physically apart but meet during a conference call, and applied the theory to the agency’s practice of serial meetings.

The preservationists had also sued to enjoin the city from demolishing the hotel, but Hardesty lifted the temporary restraining order that had kept the wrecking crews at bay. The state Supreme Court upheld the decision. Controlled explosions were used to demolish the building Jan. 30.

(Dewey v. Redevelopment Agency of the City of Reno)

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