Commentary: How 'open' are our open meetings; how public are our public records?

Those of us working in newsrooms have plenty of duties to keep us busy. One of those duties is keeping the public informed. Since we realize that not everyone can attend every public meeting, we step-in as your eyes and ears - - and at times, your nose.

Lately, a few public meetings fail the smell test.

Fortunately, those of us residing in the Verde Valley have plenty examples of above-board accountability. For example, residents of Cottonwood, Camp Verde and Clarkdale need only visit the towns' websites to read public meeting agendas and timely minutes of recent meetings. Some even include a copy of the Open Meeting Law. And parents of Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District students can view comprehensive and timely school board information on the district's website.

Sadly though, a few public bodies have created a pattern that appears to dismiss the word "public." Getting meeting agendas in time to properly alert the public, as well as receiving minutes promptly enough to inform constituents, has become a struggle.

Simply put, Arizona's Open Meeting Law was enacted in 1962 to create trust in our public officials. Making a public record of meeting topics as well as meeting actions helps voters hold their elected officials accountable for their campaign promises.

Let's begin with meeting agendas. Agendas give citizens a "heads-up" on issues so that they have a chance to attend and hear information first-hand. In most cases, citizens also have the opportunity to offer feedback.

Not to sound like a "Dragnet" TV rerun, but Arizona's Open Meeting Law A.R.S. § 38- 431 states "Agendas must be available at least 24 hours before the meeting" and "Notice must be posted on the public body's website, unless otherwise permitted by statute."

However, as the uncoiling of Valley Academy for Career and Technology (VACTE) continues, we've witnessed no less than three versions of the same March 23 meeting agenda, reworded from "your candidacy" to "the candidacy" (read Bill Helm's developing story on VACTE).

As for meeting minutes, it allows citizens who are unable to attend a public meeting a chance to learn what was said and what was done by their public officials. The law is quite clear on this: "The minutes or a recording of the public session must be open for public inspection no later than three working days after the meeting, except as otherwise provided in the statute." Be it on paper or on the web, minutes must be available.

When asked for minutes from a March 11 meeting, VACTE officials scrambled to come up with a copy. It was eventually e-mailed to us March 21. (VACTE says this was due to Spring Break and that the official minutes await board approval on March 23).

Yes, some public bodies have gotten in the habit of "blessing" minutes at the next monthly board meeting. Some would say the intent is to get things accurate and right. Others feel it is a stalling tactic. However, the law addresses this quite clearly:

Section 7.8.1 of the Open Meeting Law Handbooks states "Public bodies concerned about distributing minutes before they have been officially approved at a subsequent meeting should mark the minutes 'draft' or 'unapproved' and make them available within three working days of the meeting." And from the same section: "In no event should minutes be withheld from the public pending approval."

I wish we could provide a public source of minutes for VACTE, but their website posts agendas only. If there is a posting of minutes, it is not under "Agendas & Minutes," as minutes are conspicuously absent. So far, governing board president Steve Dockray has issued a "no comment" regarding VACTE meetings.

And VACTE is not alone. It's been 21 days since the governing boards of Yavapai College as well as the Verde Valley Board Advisory Committee met on March 1 and March 2, respectively. Yet go to their websites and "March 1, 2016 Approved Minutes" and "March 2, 2016 Meeting Approved Minutes" remain an unposted mystery as they await board approval.

At least the college posts a videotape of its board meeting. However, it's dated "March 17, 2016" - - not March 4, as the three-day intent of the Open Meeting Law.

Kim Kapin, director of marketing and communications, Yavapai College, explained that "we are dependent on Yavapai Broadcasting to process the videotape. It can take five to seven days. Plus we had Spring Break thrown in there."

So what if a citizen in Camp Verde without reliable internet access wanted to learn what happened at a daytime college board meeting in Prescott?

"They could contact me directly and I would provide a draft of the minutes," said Kapin.(After print edition, Kapin clarified it's best for the public to contact Karen Jones, governing board executive assistant, as his role is media releases).

At least the college offers videotaped coverage and a call to public during its board meetings - - something not required by law but an aid to transparency. However, the Verde Valley Board Advisory Committee still offers no recorded documentation and no call to the public during its meetings.

Three public education governing boards, yet three impediments to educating the public as defined by the Open Meeting Law, be it unintended or not.

Tom Tracey is the managing editor of the Camp Verde Bugle.

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