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Officials to look into secret meeting

April 19, 1997

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer

Several Washington County Commissioners said Friday they plan to look into why the county Water and Sewer Advisory Commission held a closed meeting on Thursday.

A Herald-Mail reporter was turned away from the budget work session and a sign was posted saying the meeting was an executive session. The advisory commission met in secret for about two hours, admitting the reporter for only the final 45 minutes of the meeting.

Commission Chairman Clarence W. Scheer said the exclusion was a mixup, and that he didn't mean to hold a closed meeting.

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Scheer's statement, however, was contradicted by Public Works Director Gary Rohrer, who said it was made "abundantly clear" to him that Scheer didn't want the media present. Rohrer also attended the meeting.

Gregory I. Snook, president of the County Commissioners, said Friday he would talk to the commission members and County Attorney Richard Douglas about the matter. "We're not trying to hide anything," Snook said.

Commissioner R. Lee Downey said he thought any discussions of an operating budget should be held in open session. "Really I would think it's public information that they're presenting. I don't see why there would be any reason to hold it in executive session," he said. "Probably this will be a good lesson for everybody."

Downey said the only times the County Commissioners hold closed sessions are to discuss businesses moving into the county, personnel issues and legal matters - exemptions allowed under the open meetings law.

Commissioner James R. Wade said he has never heard of a public body holding a closed meeting to discuss a budget. "That is not county policy," he said. "If they are talking about a budget, that is public information."

Wade said he expected the commissioners to discuss the issue at their weekly meeting Tuesday.

Commissioner John S. Shank said he didn't know anything about the meeting, but planned to find out what happened. "I will ask questions come Monday," he said. "I sure do want to see things operate the way they are supposed to."

Douglas, reached Thursday while the meeting was in session, said the meeting was exempt from the open meetings 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."

Douglas also said that public bodies could hold closed meetings to discuss "executive function."

Mary Jean Craig, an attorney for The Herald-Mail, said Friday that advisory commissions have no "executive function" under the law.

Craig said she didn't think the advisory commission could legally meet in secret to discuss the operating budget.

Craig said if commission members were simply receiving orientation information, they might be able to do that in closed session. But the commission could not legally hold a closed session if they were receiving a briefing on matters that they might take an action on, as long as another exemption such as personnel or legal matters didn't apply, she said.

Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers was out of town and unavailable for comment.

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