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Open meeting law board due to make first decisions

July 09, 1999

A state committee that will clarify which governmental bodies must obey West Virginia's newly passed open meetings law should issue its first decisions this week. We applaud those government agencies seeking guidance on how to comply with the new law, but note that the law needs one important amendment of its own.

The law was passed in the 1999 session of the state Legislature after two previous tries failed. The new law defines what sorts of meetings must be open and sets up a three-member Committee on Open Governmental Meetings to issue clarifications and resolves disputes.

This week the committee will be asked whether several advisory councils to the state's Office of Higher Education must follow the open meetings law, and whether a local board of education can continue to do performance reviews of its superintendent in closed session.

In the first case, we'd argue that the sessions should be open. Although the groups are advisory, their members participate in the hope that their recommendations will lead to action, and the law says that meetings must be open if participants intend their deliberations to influence or produce action.

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In the other case, we would argue that a school superintendent's performance review should be a personnel matter, held in closed session. Elected school board members have many opportunities to comment publicly on the superintendent's performance. It does not seem too much to ask to have the superintendent and the school board meet privately once a year to talk frankly about goals, performance and other problems.

Another point: According to Rick Alker, director of the state's Ethics Commission, any decision made at the request of one school board will apply only to that body, so that theoretically, the other 54 school boards would have to see a similar clarification.

That seems a waste of everyone's time and money unless there are different circumstances. The 2000 Legislature should amend the law to allow a ruling made for one county or one agency to be used as a guideline and a precedent by another.

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