U.S. federal and state laws require administrative agencies’ meetings, decisions, and records to be made available to the public. Public meeting statutes also called ‘Sunshine Acts’ protect public participation in governmental activities. Through sunshine acts, administrative agencies are supposed to do their work in public. The government is held accountable and is prevented from conducting the public’s business in secret[i].
All official deliberations and formal actions of all administrative agencies constitute a meeting. In such meetings discussions between members of an administrative agency to effectively predetermine official actions happen. Such discussions are to be focused on proposals or issues as decide government’s policy and its effects. A meeting shall include elements such as: a quorum of a public body’s members, a decision is deliberated or rendered by the members, and the decision concerns a matter of public policy.
Electronic meetings are meetings held over media as audio, video, or computer-based communications. It is an alternative to face-to-face meetings. Electronic meetings are effective with at least two participants or with more than 100 participants. Exchange of e-mail messages by members can constitute a meeting under open meetings law. Electronic meetings can be held even if the members of meeting are not physically present in the meeting[ii].
Meetings shall not include a gathering of members of a governmental body for social purposes when there is no discussion of public policy matters[iii]. However, when public policy issues are discussed in closed meetings without informing public it is a violation of open-meetings law. Some state laws require meetings to be held by a quorum of members.
Administrative agencies are not to conduct secret meetings. Inaccessibility to the place of meeting is also violation of public meeting law. Notices regarding the conduct of public meetings are to be issued. Notice should consist of time, date, and place of the meeting. Some states prefer to provide agenda of the meeting in the notice. Subject matter not mentioned in the agenda can not be discussed in the open meeting of administrative agencies. Time, place and date provided in the notice are to be accurate.
Public meeting laws are subject to a broad or liberal interpretation. Public interest is upheld while interpreting sunshine laws. Sunshine laws are constitutionally valid.
When an invalid act is passed in violation of an open-meetings act it can be ratified in an open meeting. However, ratification of the act will come into effect only from the date of the open meeting in which the ratifying action was taken.
Certain matters are exempted from public meetings by Sunshine laws. The exceptions are listed:
- Matters that are to be kept secret in the interests of national defense or foreign policy.
- Matters relating to internal personnel rules and practices of an agency. However, an agency cannot hold closed meetings on budget proposals because discussions relate to personnel cutbacks and performance.
- Matters exempted from disclosure by statute.
- Privileged or confidential commercial or financial information of an individual.
- Personal accusations of crimes or matters relating to any person.
- Unwarranted invasion on personal privacy. However it is not a shield against sub standard executive performance.
- Information related to examination for use of an administrative agency responsible for regulation or supervision of financial institutions.
- Discussions with an attorney relating to litigation methods as an open meeting might affect the case position adversely.
Another exception is an executive session. An executive session is a session where no records of discussions are to be kept. In an executive session only members who have official reasons to be involved are allowed in the session. Only results of such sessions need be published.
Private meetings can be called to discuss personal matters or matters that can prejudice reputation or character of a person. Matters involving employment, appointment, termination of employment, terms and conditions of employment, evaluation of performance, promotion or disciplining of any specific public officer or employee can be discussed in private sessions. However, any individual whose rights can be adversely affected can request that the matter be discussed at an open meeting. It is not mandatory that such matters are only to be discussed in private.
Members of an agency must vote to close a meeting or portion of a meeting. If a party’s interests are directly affected because private information or information regarding a crime or a criminal investigation is to be discussed, s/he can request to close the meeting. Administrative agency is to provide reasons for conducting a closed meeting in the notice to the public.
Any interested person can bring an action before court for violation of a public meeting law. When members of an administrative agency commit a violation of a public meeting law any person can move to court to stop, prevent or reverse the violation. If a person is aggrieved by the administrative agency’s violation of public meeting law he/she can also approach the court for redressal of grievance. In a wider sense, any person can move to the court to enforce a sunshine law. However, only prosecutors such as the attorney general or the district or county attorney have standing to void governmental acts that violate public meeting law[iv]. Violations of Sunshine laws can be raised in any court at the application of any person. Such a court may afford any relief as it feels appropriate.
[i] Hopf v. Topcorp, Inc., 170 Ill. App. 3d 85 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 1988)
[ii] Sovich v. Shaughnessy, 705 A.2d 942 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1998)
[iii] Gavin v. Cascade, 500 N.W.2d 729, 732 (Iowa Ct. App. 1993)
[iv] Unified Sch. Dist. No. 446 v. Sandoval, 214 P.3d 1225 (Kan. Ct. App. 2009)