Last month, The Advocate reported that Baton Rouge Metro Council members were routinely debating city business and votes in emails — which some law experts suggested was a violation of the state open meetings law.
Council members engaging in group emails mostly dismissed the idea that they were doing anything wrong.
Ironically, the most flagrant emailer on the Metro Council, Councilman Ryan Heck, championed the importance of open meetings laws in late 2013 when he was trying to remove members of the Historic Preservation Commission.
Members of the HPC were already under fire by some council members for what they perceived as an overly burdensome permitting process for homeowners and developers wanting to make changes to properties in the parish’s historic districts. Heck said he was going to remove the members of the board who twice met as a quorum without advertising proper notice of the meeting.
However, Heck never moved forward with plans to remove the board members after board President Carolyn Bennett was removed on a technicality, when it was revealed that she was ineligible to sit on the board because of term limits.
In August, Heck said he thought the council’s use of emails was a more responsible way to communicate because it locks everything in as a public record that can be viewed. But sunshine law advocates said the council members discussing business and votes in email circumvents the law because the public is not given the opportunity to watch the decisions get made in real time.
Acting Parish Attorney Lea Anne Batson said the Parish Attorney’s Office had not issued any opinions on group emails.
But Historic Preservation Commissioner Bill Huey pointed out that last year the Parish Attorney’s Office gave some of the commissioners heat about some of the same activity.
In April 2013, Assistant Parish Attorney Kristen Craig warned the Historic Preservation Commission about sending group emails about creating a survey.
“Any discussion regarding the surveys, including the content, or any decision-making and/or voting on the content needs to be held in a public hearing after proper notice has been issued,” she said in her opinion.
She added that “if there is any doubt, the statute should be construed in favor of open meetings.” Then she quoted the state law that states the purpose of open meetings laws.
“It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy,” the law reads. “Toward this end, the provisions of this Chapter shall be construed liberally.”
The Advocate reviewed four months of emails, amounting to more than 500 pages. Council members did not take straw polls or blatantly engage in secret balloting — which is expressly prohibited by state law. However, they frequently expressed their own positions about issues, urged other council members to vote for or against an item and strategized about how to deal with controversial issues.
State law specifically forbids a quorum, or simple majority, of a public body from holding private meetings to either deliberate or act on a matter.