As the result of a news report on our front page earlier this week of allegations flying in the city of Cumberland, we believe this is a great time to offer a reminder to all public officials of the importance of the law.
While we don’t know what was said and not said at a reported recent gathering of some Cumberland City Council members outside city hall that led Mayor Carl Hatfield to allege an illegal meeting occurred, we do want to urge those accused to use caution in the future to avoid any possibility of a negative public perception.
We certainly are taking the council members at their word this time as they tell us no public business was discussed, especially since a member of another news agency’s staff was present for the “informal” gathering. We also must mention that we want to take Mayor Hatfield at his word that enough council members weren’t there to call a special meeting to order. However, we also feel obligated to say that we believe he should have called the meeting to order when a quorum arrived so that important public business could occur.
The open meetings legislation has some exceptions that permit councils, fiscal courts, commissions and other specified entities to go into closed session to discuss personnel, litigation and a few other items. It also clearly states that a gathering of a quorum of the members of a public agency at which public business is discussed or action is taken are public meetings and must be open to the public, regardless of where they are held, and whether they are regular or special or informational or casual gatherings held in anticipation of a regular or special meeting.
Because newspapers are challenged with being the “watchdog” for government, we want to urge all of our councils, commissions and fiscal courts to brush up on the law governing open meetings. We also urge you to brush up on the open records section of the law so that you know the law when issues arise. You have been entrusted by your community to serve for the betterment of the community. Legally informed officials are vital to good government.
Participating in situations that allow for serious allegations of wrongdoing to be aired is not a good thing. Keeping public business open is not a privilege — it is the law. Violations can have far reaching ramifications to you and your community, bringing needless embarrassment to all.