How do states deal with violations of open-meetings laws?

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Over the past few years various states have begun to tighten their open-meetings laws so that fewer violations will result. For example, on May 3, 2005, Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa signed into law a bill that strictly enforces the state’s open-meetings law. Under the previous law, a public official found guilty of violating the meetings statute three times in a single term could be removed from office. The new law lowered that number to two. Those who violate the law are subject to a simple misdemeanor (up to 30 days in jail and a maximum fine of $500). Also in Iowa, the state’s Web site hosts a calendar of all public meetings on the agenda, with links to provide citizens with background and supplemental information related to a particular issue.

Also in 2005, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds signed into law S.B. 62, which created a commission made up of five state’s attorneys that could reprimand those who violate the state’s open-meetings law. As a result of this new panel, prosecutors could either file charges against violators or they could send a complaint to the commission for consideration. Violations of the meetings law can be punished with a fine up to $500 and up to 30 days in jail.

It is rare for criminal charges to be filed for open-meetings violations because of prosecutors’ reluctance to charge elected officials. In May 2005 in Texas, however, prosecutors charged and a grand jury indicted a former school board president in Upshur County for “conspiring to circumvent the Texas Open Meetings Act.” (A jury later acquitted the official.) The same week of this indictment, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill that required public officials to enroll in a course about the state’s open-meetings law. Officials must take the course within 90 days of taking office.