Open Governmental Proceedings Act
Overview of the Act
Statement of purpose
The statement of purpose of the Open Meetings Act states,
“The Legislature hereby finds and declares that public agencies in this state exist for the singular purpose of representing citizens of this state in governmental affairs, and it is, therefore, in the best interests of the people of this state for the proceedings of public agencies be conducted openly, with only a few clearly defined exceptions. The Legislature hereby further finds and declares that the citizens of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the governmental agencies that serve them. The people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments of government created by them. Open government allows the public to educate itself about government decision-making through individuals’ attendance and participation at government functions, distribution of government information by the press or interested citizens, and public debate on issues deliberated within the government. Public access to information promotes attendance at meetings, improves planning of meetings, and encourages more thorough preparation and complete discussion of issues by participating officials. The government also benefits from openness because better preparation and public input allow government agencies to gauge public preferences accurately and thereby tailor their actions and policies more closely to public needs. Public confidence and understanding ease potential resistance to government programs. Accordingly, the benefits of openness inure to both the public affected by governmental decision-making and the decision makers themselves. The Legislature finds, however, that openness, public access to information and a desire to improve the operation of government do not require nor permit every meeting to be a public meeting. The Legislature finds that it would be unrealistic, if not impossible, to carry on the business of government should every meeting, every contact and every discussion seeking advice and counsel in order to acquire the necessary information, data or intelligence needed by a governing body were required to be a public meeting. It is the intent of the Legislature to balance these interests in order to allow government to function and the public to participate in a meaningful manner in public agency decision-making.”
Which government meetings are open to the public?
The law states that a meeting is any gathering of a quorum of the members of a public body in order to deliberate and decide on public policy.
Notable exemptions to this definition include:
- judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings
- on site inspections
- single party caucuses
- discussion of public business at “a planned or unplanned social, educational, training, informal, ceremonial or similar setting” where no intention of action exists
- when discussing scheduling or rescheduling meetings
What government bodies are subject to the laws?
The act defines government body as any public agency which has the authority to advise or make decisions regarding public policy. The act defines public agency as any administrative or legislative organization of the state or any of its political subdivisions.
Notable exemptions to the definition of public body include the courts.
The legislature falls under the definition of public body found at West Virginia Statute § 6-9A-2. and is subject to the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act. Specifically, any standing, select or special committee, except the commission on special investigations is subject to the act.
The act requires all public bodies to develop their own policies regarding the announcement of regularly scheduled and special meetings so as to provide reasonable access to public meetings. The executive branch of the state is required to post its meetings 5 days in advance with the state register.
The act requires that all public bodies record accurate minutes of their meetings to include the date and location of the meeting, the members present, all proposals and discussions and the detailed recording of all votes taken and their results. These minutes must be made available to the public within a reasonable amount of time.
Public bodies can convene executive sessions with a majority vote for the following reasons:
- to consider acts of war or civil insurrection
- to consider employment, discipline, termination or resignation of public employees, unless the public employee requests an open meeting
- hearings on complaints against public employees
- student disciplinary hearings
- to issue, suspend or deny a license
- when discussing the physical or mental health of a person
- any materials whose disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of privacy
- investigation materials
- to discuss the purchase or sale of property
- to avoid premature disclosure of awards
- to discuss pending settlements
- the act limits the attorney-client privilege to only pending litigation and settlements and not any occasion at which the attorney is present
- to discuss matters exempted under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act or federal statute or court order
All legal actions taken against a public body in violation of the act must be made within 120 days of the meeting or decision in question. Actions taken during meetings in violation of the open meetings act can be voided by a circuit court. Courts may also assess fines of up to $500 for their first violation and between $100-$1000 for the second violation. The court may assess attorney fees to either party, if it finds that the public body violated the open meetings act of if it finds that the litigation was frivolous or design ed to harass the public body.
Text of the Act
WEST VIRGINIA CODE
CHAPTER 6. GENERAL PROVISIONS RESPECTING OFFICERS.
ARTICLE 9A. OPEN GOVERNMENTAL PROCEEDINGS.
§6-9A-1. Declaration of legislative policy.
The Legislature hereby finds and declares that public agencies in this state exist for the singular purpose of representing citizens of this state in governmental affairs, and it is, therefore, in the best interests of the people of this state for the proceedings of public agencies be conducted openly, with only a few clearly defined exceptions. The Legislature hereby further finds and declares that the citizens of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the governmental agencies that serve them. The people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments of government created by them.
Open government allows the public to educate itself about government decisionmaking through individuals’ attendance and participation at government functions, distribution of government information by the press or interested citizens, and public debate on issues deliberated within the government.
Public access to information promotes attendance at meetings, improves planning of meetings, and encourages more thorough preparation and complete discussion of issues by participating officials. The government also benefits from openness because better preparation and public input allow government agencies to gauge public preferences accurately and thereby tailor their actions and policies more closely to public needs. Public confidence and understanding ease potential resistance to government programs.
Accordingly, the benefits of openness inure to both the public affected by governmental decisionmaking and the decision makers themselves. The Legislature finds, however, that openness, public access to information and a desire to improve the operation of government do not require nor permit every meeting to be a public meeting. The Legislature finds that it would be unrealistic, if not impossible, to carry on the business of government should every meeting, every contact and every discussion seeking advice and counsel in order to acquire the necessary information, data or intelligence needed by a governing body were required to be a public meeting. It is the intent of the Legislature to balance these interests in order to allow government to function and the public to participate in a meaningful manner in public agency decisionmaking.
As used in this article:
(1) “Decision” means any determination, action, vote or final disposition of a motion, proposal, resolution, order, ordinance or measure on which a vote of the governing body is required at any meeting at which a quorum is present.
(2) “Executive session” means any meeting or part of a meeting of a governing body which is closed to the public.
(3) “Governing body” means the members of any public agency having the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public agency on policy or administration, the membership of a governing body consists of two or more members; for the purposes of this article, a governing body of the Legislature is any standing, select or special committee, except the commission on special investigations, as determined by the rules of the respective houses of the Legislature.
(4) “Meeting” means the convening of a governing body of a public agency for which a quorum is required in order to make a decision or to deliberate toward a decision on any matter which results in an official action. Meetings may be held by telephone conference or other electronic means. The term meeting does not include:
(A) Any meeting for the purpose of making an adjudicatory decision in any quasi-judicial, administrative or court of claims proceeding;
(B) Any on-site inspection of any project or program;
(C) Any political party caucus;
(D) General discussions among members of a governing body on issues of interest to the public when held in a planned or unplanned social, educational, training, informal, ceremonial or similar setting, without intent to conduct public business even if a quorum is present and public business is discussed but there is no intention for the discussion to lead to an official action; or
(E) Discussions by members of a governing body on logistical and procedural methods to schedule and regulate a meeting.
(5) “Official action” means action which is taken by virtue of power granted by law, ordinance, policy, rule, or by virtue of the office held.
(6) “Public agency” means any administrative or legislative unit of state, county or municipal government, including any department, division, bureau, office, commission, authority, board, public corporation, section, committee, subcommittee or any other agency or subunit of the foregoing, authorized by law to exercise some portion of executive or legislative power. The term “public agency” does not include courts created by article eight of the West Virginia constitution or the system of family law masters created by article four, chapter forty-eight-a of this code.
(7) “Quorum” means the gathering of a simple majority of the constituent membership of a governing body, unless applicable law provides for varying the required ratio.
§6-9A-3. Proceedings to be open; public notice of meetings.
Except as expressly and specifically otherwise provided by law, whether heretofore or hereinafter enacted, and except as provided in section four of this article, all meetings of any governing body shall be open to the public. Any governing body may make and enforce reasonable rules for attendance and presentation at any meeting where there is not room enough for all members of the public who wish to attend. This article does not prohibit the removal from a meeting of any member of the public who is disrupting the meeting to the extent that orderly conduct of the meeting is compromised: Provided, That persons who desire to address the governing body may not be required to register to address the body more than fifteen minutes prior to time the scheduled meeting is to commence.
Each governing body shall promulgate rules by which the date, time, place and agenda of all regularly scheduled meetings and the date, time, place and purpose of all special meetings are made available, in advance, to the public and news media, except in the event of an emergency requiring immediate official action.
Each governing body of the executive branch of the state shall file a notice of any meeting with the secretary of state for publication in the state register. Each notice shall state the date, time, place and purpose of the meeting. Each notice shall be filed in a manner to allow each notice to appear in the state register at least five days prior to the date of the meeting.
In the event of an emergency requiring immediate official action, any governing body of the executive branch of the state may file an emergency meeting notice at any time prior to the meeting. The emergency meeting notice shall state the date, time, place and purpose of the meeting and the facts and circumstances of the emergency.
Upon petition by any adversely affected party any court of competent jurisdiction may invalidate any action taken at any meeting for which notice did not comply with the requirements of this section.
(a) The governing body of a public agency may hold an executive session during a regular, special or emergency meeting, in accordance with the provisions of this section. During the open portion of the meeting, prior to convening an executive session, the presiding officer of the governing body shall identify the authorization under this section for holding the executive session and present it to the governing body and to the general public, but no decision may be made in the executive session.
(b) An executive session may be held only upon a majority affirmative vote of the members present of the governing body of a public agency. A public agency may hold an executive session and exclude the public only when a closed session is required for any of the following actions:
(1) To consider acts of war, threatened attack from a foreign power, civil insurrection or riot;
(2) To consider:
(A) Matters arising from the appointment, employment, retirement, promotion, transfer, demotion, disciplining, resignation, discharge, dismissal or compensation of a public officer or employee, or prospective public officer or employee unless the public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee requests an open meeting; or
(B) For the purpose of conducting a hearing on a complaint, charge or grievance against a public officer or employee, unless the public officer or employee requests an open meeting. General personnel policy issues may not be discussed or considered in a closed meeting. Final action by a public agency having authority for the appointment, employment, retirement, promotion, transfer, demotion, disciplining, resignation, discharge, dismissal or compensation of an individual shall be taken in an open meeting;
(3) To decide upon disciplining, suspension or expulsion of any student in any public school or public college or university, unless the student requests an open meeting;
(4) To issue, effect, deny, suspend or revoke a license, certificate or registration under the laws of this state or any political subdivision, unless the person seeking the license, certificate or registration or whose license, certificate or registration was denied, suspended or revoked requests an open meeting;
(5) To consider the physical or mental health of any person, unless the person requests an open meeting;
(6) To discuss any material the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy such as any records, data, reports, recommendations or other personal material of any educational, training, social service, rehabilitation, welfare, housing, relocation, insurance and similar program or institution operated by a public agency pertaining to any specific individual admitted to or served by the institution or program, the individual’s personal and family circumstances;
(7) To plan or consider an official investigation or matter relating to crime prevention or law enforcement;
(8) To develop security personnel or devices;
(9) To consider matters involving or affecting the purchase, sale or lease of property, advance construction planning, the investment of public funds or other matters involving commercial competition, which if made public, might adversely affect the financial or other interest of the state or any political subdivision: Provided, That information relied on during the course of deliberations on matters involving commercial competition are exempt from disclosure under the open meetings requirements of this article only until the commercial competition has been finalized and completed: Provided, however, That information not subject to release pursuant to the West Virginia freedom of information act does not become subject to disclosure as a result of executive session;
(10) To avoid the premature disclosure of an honorary degree, scholarship, prize or similar award;
(11) Nothing in this article permits a public agency to close a meeting that otherwise would be open, merely because an agency attorney is a participant. If the public agency has approved or considered a settlement in closed session, and the terms of the settlement allow disclosure, the terms of that settlement shall be reported by the public agency and entered into its minutes within a reasonable time after the settlement is concluded;
(12) To discuss any matter which, by express provision of federal law or state statute or rule of court is rendered confidential, or which is not considered a public record within the meaning of the freedom of information act as set forth in article one, chapter twenty-nine-b of this code.
Each governing body shall provide for the preparation of written minutes of all of its meetings. Subject to the exceptions set forth in section four of this article, minutes of all meetings except minutes of executive sessions, if any are taken, shall be available to the public within a reasonable time after the meeting and shall include, at least, the following information:
(1) The date, time and place of the meeting;
(2) The name of each member of the governing body present and absent;
(3) All motions, proposals, resolutions, orders, ordinances and measures proposed, the name of the person proposing the same and their disposition; and
(4) The results of all votes and, upon the request of a member, pursuant to the rules, policies or procedures of the governing board for recording roll call votes, the vote of each member, by name.
§6-9A-6. Enforcement by injunctions; actions in violation of article voidable; voidability of bond issues.
The circuit court in the county where the public agency regularly meets has jurisdiction to enforce this article upon civil action commenced by any citizen of this state within one hundred twenty days after the action complained of was taken or the decision complained of was made. Where the action seeks injunctive relief, no bond may be required unless the petition appears to be without merit or made with the sole intent of harassing or delaying or avoiding return by the governing body.
The court is empowered to compel compliance or enjoin noncompliance with the provisions of this article and to annul a decision made in violation of this article. An injunction may also order that subsequent actions be taken or decisions be made in conformity with the provisions of this article: Provided, That no bond issue that has been passed or approved by any governing body in this state may be annulled under this section if notice of the meeting at which the bond issue was finally considered was given at least ten days prior to the meeting by a Class I legal advertisement published in accordance with the provisions of article three, chapter fifty-nine of this code in a qualified newspaper having a general circulation in the geographic area represented by that governing body.
In addition to or in conjunction with any other acts or omissions which may be determined to be in violation of this article, it is a violation of this article for a governing body to hold a private meeting with the intention of transacting public business, thwarting public scrutiny and making decisions that eventually become official action.
Any order which compels compliance or enjoins noncompliance with the provisions of this article, or which annuls a decision made in violation of this article shall include findings of fact and conclusions of law and shall be recorded in the minutes of the governing body.
§6-9A-7. Violation of article; criminal penalties; attorney fees and expenses in civil actions.
(a) Any person who is a member of a public or governmental body required to conduct open meetings in compliance with the provisions of this article and who willfully and knowingly violates the provisions of this article is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not more than five hundred dollars: Provided, That a person who is convicted of a second or subsequent offense under this subsection is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than one thousand dollars.
(b) A public agency whose governing body is adjudged in a civil action to have conducted a meeting in violation of the provisions of this article may be liable to a prevailing party for fees and other expenses incurred by that party in connection with litigating the issue of whether the governing body acted in violation of this article, unless the court finds that the position of the public agency was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award of fees and other expenses unjust.
(c) Where the court, upon denying the relief sought by the complaining person in the action, finds that the action was frivolous or commenced with the primary intent of harassing the governing body or any member thereof or, in the absence of good faith, of delaying any meetings or decisions of the governing body, the court may require the complaining person to pay the governing body’s necessary attorney fees and expenses.
§6-9A-8. Acting by reference; written ballots.
(a) Except as otherwise expressly provided by law, the members of a public agency may not deliberate, vote, or otherwise take official action upon any matter by reference to a letter, number or other designation or other secret device or method, which may render it difficult for persons attending a meeting of the public agency to understand what is being deliberated, voted or acted upon. However, this subsection does not prohibit a public agency from deliberating, voting or otherwise taking action by reference to an agenda, if copies of the agenda, sufficiently worded to enable the public to understand what is being deliberated, voted or acted upon, are available for public inspection at the meeting.
(b) A public agency may not vote by secret or written ballot.
§6-9A-9. Broadcasting or recording meetings.
(a) Except as otherwise provided in this section, any radio or television station is entitled to broadcast all or any part of a meeting required to be open.
(b) A public agency may regulate the placement and use of equipment necessary for broadcasting, photographing, filming or recording a meeting, so as to prevent undue interference with the meeting. The public agency shall allow the equipment to be placed within the meeting room in such a way as to permit its intended use, and the ordinary use of the equipment may not be declared to constitute undue interference: Provided, That if the public agency, in good faith, determines that the size of the meeting room is such that all the members of the public present and the equipment and personnel necessary for broadcasting, photographing, filming and tape-recording the meeting cannot be accommodated in the meeting room without unduly interfering with the meeting and an adequate alternative meeting room is not readily available, then the public agency, acting in good faith and consistent with the purposes of this article, may require the pooling of the equipment and the personnel operating it.
§6-9A-10. Open governmental meetings committee.
The West Virginia ethics commission, pursuant to subsection (j), section one, article two, chapter six-b of this code, shall appoint from the membership of the commission a subcommittee of three persons designated as the West Virginia ethics commission committee on open governmental meetings. The chairman shall designate one of the persons to chair the committee. In addition to the three members of the committee, two additional members of the commission shall be designated to serve as alternate members of the committee.
The chairman of the committee or the executive director shall call meetings of the committee to act on requests for advisory opinions interpreting the West Virginia open government meetings act. Advisory opinions shall be issued in a timely manner, not to exceed thirty days.
§6-9A-11. Request for advisory opinion; maintaining confidentiality.
(a) Any governing body or member thereof subject to the provisions of this article may seek advice and information from the executive director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission or request in writing an advisory opinion from the West Virginia Ethics Commission Committee on Open Governmental Meetings as to whether an action or proposed action violates the provisions of this article. The executive director may render oral advice and information upon request. The committee shall respond in writing and in an expeditious manner to a request for an advisory opinion. The opinion is binding on the parties requesting the opinion.
(b) Any governing body or member thereof that seeks an advisory opinion and acts in good faith reliance on the opinion has an absolute defense to any civil suit or criminal prosecution for any action taken in good faith reliance on the opinion unless the committee was willfully and intentionally misinformed as to the facts by the body or its representative.
(c) A governing body or member thereof that acts in good faith reliance on a written advisory opinion sought by another person or governing body has an absolute defense to any civil suit or criminal prosecution for any action taken based upon a written opinion of the West Virginia ethics commission committee, as long as underlying facts and circumstances surrounding the action were the same or substantially the same as those being addressed by the written opinion.
(d) The committee and commission may take appropriate action to protect from disclosure information which is properly shielded by an exception provided in section four of this article.
§6-9A-12. Duty of attorney general, secretary of state, clerks of the county commissions and city clerks or recorders.
It is the duty of the attorney general to compile the statutory and case law pertaining to this article and to prepare appropriate summaries and interpretations for the purpose of informing all public officials subject to this article of the requirements of this article. It is the duty of the secretary of state, the clerks of the county commissions, joint clerks of the county commissions and circuit courts, if any, and the city clerks or recorders of the municipalities of the state to provide a copy of the material compiled by the attorney general to all elected public officials within their respective jurisdictions. The clerks or recorders will make the material available to appointed public officials. Likewise, it is their respective duties to provide a copy or summary to any newly appointed or elected person within thirty days of the elected or appointed official taking the oath of office or an appointed person’s start of term.
Note: WV Code updated with legislation passed through the 2011 4th Special Session