“We must reject the idea that every time a law is broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each is accountable for his actions.”
— Ronald Reagan
As I sat through a recent city council meeting, I thought about how significant it is to be able to live in a country where people can get up in front of a governing body and speak their piece, without fear of threats or intimidation.
Fundamental to this right is the absolute need for government to be open in its deliberations and decisions. I was asked recently to write an article on Utah’s open meetings laws. I cannot think of a more important subject for residents of our communities to be aware of. Open meetings promote the essential element of transparency in government.
The principle behind the law is that the people’s business should be conducted in the open (Utah Code 52-4-102). The code specifically requires that the chair of each public body ensures that the elected officials are trained at least annually in how to comply (Utah Code 52-4-104).
Closed meetings in local government are limited by code to those occasions that involve the disposition of real property by sale or other means; the competence, physical or mental health of an individual; or to discuss pending or reasonably imminent litigation.
Meetings must be properly advertised at least 24 hours in advance, unless additional time is required by statute. Official written minutes must be kept and be made available to the public within a reasonable time period after the meeting. A recorded copy must also be kept and made available no later than three days afterward.
To be clear, not every gathering of municipal officials constitutes a “meeting” under the act. To be a “meeting,” a quorum consisting of a majority of council members must be present. The mayor is not considered a council member for the purpose of establishing a quorum except in the rare circumstance in which the mayor is allowed a vote.
Chance meetings and social gatherings are not considered “meetings” under the law. Neither are meetings for which no public funds are expended and the purpose is solely for the discussion or implementation of administrative or operational matters — with no action taken or discussion required.
In my time as mayor of Layton, I have experienced short meetings as well as those that have gone late into the night. I have watched our City Council listen, deliberate and make informed decisions after hearing from their constituents.
The meetings are not always easy, and there are times when opinions strongly differ and discussion becomes quite heated. After it is all over, however, the most important thing is that we all have a voice in our government and the shaping of our communities.
Steve Curtis has worked as a business consultant and communication specialist. He is currently mayor of Layton. He can be reached at email@example.com.