Those who work in the public sector, whether that be in a municipality, parish, or state agency, are all too familiar with regulatory guidelines. Public bodies are held to standards that for-profit and private agencies are not; they have different reporting requirements, they follow different accounting standards, and above all, they must act with transparency. Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law is a regulation that improves public sector transparency. While some organizations may see the law as just another requirement, public bodies should consider viewing it instead as a tool to keep them accountable to the population they serve.
Applicability of Open Meetings Law
Louisiana’s Constitution gives citizens the explicit right to “observe the deliberations of public bodies and examine public documents.” In alignment with this constitutional right, the Open Meetings Law implores public bodies to convene in a setting that is open to the public. The law argues that when organizations make decisions using the powers they were assigned, the public should be able to witness those decisions being made and speak up if they have concerns.
The Open Meetings Law applies to all organizations in the public sector. This includes:
• State, city, and local governments
• School districts
• Levee boards
• Other policy-making authorities
It may even apply to nonprofits if those nonprofits were created by (or on behalf of) a public body.
How to Host an Open Meeting
For a public body to host an open meeting in accordance with Louisiana’s laws, they must do five things:
- Give Notice – The meeting details – date, time and place of the meeting – must be posted publicly at least 24 business hours in advance. Most organizations post meeting details on their website and at the meeting’s location.
- Have an Agenda – The notice should include an agenda that lets the public know what topics will be discussed. This agenda should not be changed within 24 business hours of the meeting. The only exception to this rule is when emergency meetings are called, which will only occur when there are imminent threats such as civil disturbances, natural disasters, or worker strikes.
- Gather a Quorum – A “simple majority” – at least 51% – of the public body’s membership must be present at the meeting. Without a quorum, the attending members and general public can informally discuss concerns, but they cannot take action or make binding decisions.
- Be Open for Public Comment – Each meeting must dedicate reasonable time for public comment before the body is called to a vote. School boards must make space for comments before each individual topic they discuss, but other organizations can open the floor for comments at any time during the meeting as long the public can have their say before voting occurs.
- Record the Proceedings – The public body must record minutes from each meeting that includes the date, time, and place of the meeting, the members present, information about items discussed, and outcome of votes taken. The group must also allow members of the public to record the meeting if they so choose.
Closed Meetings are Permitted
Closed meetings – called “executive sessions” – are permitted if (1) proper notice of the meeting is given, (2) two thirds of the members vote to close the meeting, and (3) the body conveys why they chose to enter a closed session. Closed sessions are reserved for sensitive discussions like those regarding:
• Health concerns for an employee
• Professional misconduct of a worker
• Concerns about security or safety
• Pending litigation
• Extraordinary emergencies (floods, worker strikes, insurrections, etc.)
• Any matter deemed confidential by law
If the competence or health of an employee needs to be discussed, the employee must be given 24-hour notice of a pending executive session. At that point, they can choose to open the discussion up to the public or to let the public body continue in a closed session.
This is an Opportunity
Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law will be enforced if need be. Civil penalties of up to $100 per violation may be assessed, and the body may even be sued if a decision was made without public input. However, these consequences should not be what motivates you to follow the law. This law was created to improve transparency between public bodies and the members of the public they were entrusted to serve. Those in the public sector dedicate their lives to serving the public. Allowing members of the public to have input in how they can best be served should be a worthwhile goal.