Press was kept out of water/sewer meeting

April 18, 1997


Staff Writer

The Washington County Water and Sewer Advisory Commission met in secret for two hours in a budget work session Thursday, after a reporter was turned away from the meeting.

Commission Chairman Clarence W. Scheer said the reporter's exclusion was a mixup and that he didn't intend for the meeting to be closed.

The reporter was allowed into the meeting for the final 45 minutes while the commission discussed woes at the county's industrial pretreatment plant with county staff.


A sign with the words "Executive Session" written in red marker had been posted on the meeting room door. Scheer said he didn't tell anyone to post the sign.

Public Works Director Gary Rohrer said he learned when he arrived at the meeting that the commission had decided to hold an executive session.

Rohrer said he had, on the advice of County Attorney Richard Douglas and County Administrator Rodney Shoop, sent a fax notification of the meeting to The Herald-Mail on Wednesday afternoon.

"When I got there, (Scheer) was annoyed that the press had been notified," Rohrer said. "He said that this was an executive session and that we did not have to have the press in."

Rohrer said Scheer told him he had talked to Douglas and said Douglas had told him the panel could hold an executive session.

"It was abundantly clear to me that (Scheer) didn't want the press in the meeting," Rohrer said.

Scheer said that rather than wanting to keep the press out of the meeting, his concern had been to notify the press.

"I kept saying all along `do we have a notice in the newspaper?'" Scheer said.

Scheer said he had asked Douglas on Wednesday if the commission could hold an unscheduled meeting without notifying the newspaper or running an advertisement. Douglas said it was not a problem, he said.

"There was no effort on my part to keep anyone out of that meeting today," he said. "I want the public to know what we're doing."

Scheer said he was volunteering his time to give something back to Washington County, which has been good to him.

"There is an awful lot of people that could give an awful lot of assistance to the county who don't, because they don't want to get beat up by the newspaper," Scheer said.

Rohrer said he was puzzled by the decision to close the meeting. "We didn't talk about anything in there that we didn't talk about on Tuesday," he said.

Rohrer said there was no justification for closing the meeting because it wasn't about contracts, personnel or legal matters.

The commission discussed the proposed budget for the Water and Sewer Department that had been presented to the Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday, Scheer said.

The commission didn't discuss any recommendations on the proposed rate increases, he said. The meeting was held to bring members of the commission, all seven of whom were appointed this year, up to speed on the vocabulary and details of the budget, Scheer said.

Douglas said in a phone interview while the meeting was taking place that he couldn't divulge what Scheer asked him or what he told Scheer because of attorney-client privilege.

Douglas said that the commission was within its rights to hold a closed meeting because the open meetings law didn't apply.

"It's an executive session which is outside the scope of the open meetings law," Douglas said.

Douglas said the meeting was exempt from the law "because they weren't going to discuss anything that was legislative or quasi-legislative. They are not going to make any recommendations or discuss any recommendations in this meeting. It was strictly a work session."

Mary Jean Craig, an attorney for The Herald-Mail, said there is an exemption in the open meetings law for "executive function," but said she didn't think discussing a budget qualifies.

"I think that is probably quasi-legislative," she said.

The advisory commission, which is appointed by the County Commissioners, doesn't have the power to set rates or change budgets, but can make recommendations.

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