Utah State Capitol

The Utah State Capitol on March 8, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — A public body could conduct a closed meeting to get advice from its attorney under a bill proposed by a Layton legislator.

The Utah Open and Public Meetings Act already lists numerous reasons why state or local government boards can go into closed session, such as discussing potential property transactions, individual character or competence, collective bargaining or litigation.

But Rep. Stephen Handy’s House Bill 74 is designed to permit special service districts, such as sewer and water boards, to go into closed session to receive legal advice from their attorneys.

“They’re trying to find a way to have a conversation with their attorneys in private about things so they don’t make mistakes,” Handy said Thursday.

But the Utah Media Coalition opposes an exemption for legal advice.

“The exception would apply to all public bodies, not just special service districts,” Jeff Hunt, a Salt Lake City media attorney, said by email. “We believe such an exception is unnecessary and would be an invitation to abuse and closure of many public meetings. Nearly any meeting could be closed to receive ‘legal advice’ on almost any subject.”

Hunt said district representatives said they would try to craft a narrower exemption, but so far nothing has been offered.

LeGrand Bitter, executive director of the Syracuse-based Utah Association of Special Districts, said Friday his group agrees the bill in its current form “will not work” due to the media coalition’s concerns. He said they will try to find language that will solve the problems cited by both sides.

Handy said if a compromise can’t be reached, he would consider dropping the bill. The 2019 legislative session begins Monday.

Meetings transparency has a long history of conflict in Utah.

The law requires state bodies to post agendas, minutes, documents and audio recordings of all public meetings on the Utah Public Notices website. But in 2017, an investigation by the Standard-Examiner found that governing boards in the Utah Department of Natural Resources had not been following the law for three years.

Media lawyers also have pointed to loopholes that allow some entities to operate in secret, such as when a single-issue panel appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert made major recommendations on water policy in 2017.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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