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Meeting in small groups with no quorum violates open meetings law

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    NMU         NEVADA         Freedom of Information         Jan 12, 2000    

Meeting in small groups with no quorum violates open meetings law

  • A trial judge has ruled that government agencies cannot circumvent open meetings requirements simply by convening in small groups.

Government agencies cannot get around the requirements of the state’s open meetings law by holding meetings that do not have quorums, a Nevada trial court ruled in late December.

The practice of meeting in small groups in back-to-back sessions so agency board members can privately talk with agency staff violates the Nevada Open Meetings Law, even though no quorum of board members is present for any one meeting.

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, District Judge James Hardesty ruled Dec. 21, 1999.

The ruling stems from a long-running battle between the city of Reno and groups interested in preserving the Mapes Hotel, a downtown landmark built in 1947 and listed on the register of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In 1996, the city’s Redevelopment Agency acquired the hotel, which sat vacant for almost two decades. Since the acquisition, agency board members had met in small groups with the agency’s staff to privately discuss various plans for the hotel. After the most recent plan for redeveloping the hotel fell through in the fall of 1999, the agency voted to demolish the hotel.

In addition to filing suit in Washoe County District Court in Reno to enjoin the agency from destroying the hotel, several individuals and preservation groups challenged the agency’s practice of meeting in small groups as a violation of the open meetings law. They sought to rescind the agency’s vote to destroy the hotel.

The agency had claimed such meetings between board members and staff were necessary because the issues the agency worked on were complex and required a “safe environment”where board members could feel comfortable asking questions. It 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 agency had also argued that the law applied only during meetings when board members were deliberating official business, not during question-and-answer sessions between board members and agency staff. But Hardesty said that the process of accumulating information is part of the deliberative process and, therefore, is considered a meeting under the law.

Open meetings, Hardesty noted, are a far better way to exchange information than the secretive ones the agency had engaged in.

“To preserve the practice of private briefings, the agency places an artificial wall around members who attend,” Hardesty wrote. “The agency’s practice actually inhibits discussions between the members. It has the effect of dividing them into small groups, thus cutting off the very dialogue our high court has permitted.”

While Hardesty ruled the agency had violated the meetings act, he lifted the temporary injunction banning demolition of the hotel. Instead, he enjoined the agency from meeting in private in the future.

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

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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