Doing public business behind closed doors

Elkins Mayor Van Broughton and Elkins City Council invited C. Joan Parker, the executive director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission, to come to their meeting Thursday to speak about open meetings and ethics laws.

The Elkins officials – including three new councilmen – are concerned about running their meetings in the proper way, and Parker gave them plenty of pointers Thursday.

Among the tips she passed on were:

Councils, commissions and boards of education can vote on motions only during public meetings they attend in person.

“No written votes, no secret votes, no proxy votes,” Parker said, stressing that votes cannot be taken during executive sessions.

Speaking of executive sessions, Parker said elected officials cannot go into executive session for issues that are not on the meeting’s agenda. The reason for taking the issue into executive session – because it’s a personnel matter, for instance – must also be printed on the agenda.

Once in an executive session, officials can only talk about the issue on the agenda. Parker warned against officials sliding from one topic to another behind closed doors.

“You want to be careful about doing too much in executive session, because people will get suspicious,” Parker said, pointing at the only reporter in the room.

Although Parker has a sense of humor, she assured City Council that the Open Meetings Law is no joke. Officials who violate the laws can be subject to public reprimand, including a fine of up to $5,000 per offense.

She also warned that officials who intentionally violate the Open Meetings Law can be prosecuted. Even unintentionally violating the law can lead to officials being sued, Parker said.

Broughton and Elkins City Council are to be commended. Their request for Parker to share knowledge with them could serve as a great example for our area’s other elected officials, some of whom don’t always seem aware of the open meeting rules.

Belington Town Council, for example, held an emergency meeting one early morning last month without telling the media – even though reporters had been calling the day before asking for information.

Not to pick on Barbour County, but the Barbour Board of Education is notorious for holding meetings lasting five to six hours. Often those meetings will contain two or more executive sessions. Sometimes the board spends as much as three hours in executive session per meeting.

We wonder what C. Joan Parker would say about that. Perhaps some other local officials should invite her to a meeting as well.