This case involved allegations that a public agency had violated provisions of the Open Governmental Proceedings Act (sometimes referred to as the “Sunshine Law).
The alleged violations occurred in connection with a public meeting held by the Jefferson County Planning Commission. During the meeting, the Planning Commission held a private executive session to enter into a settlement agreement regarding on-going litigation referred to as the “Far Away Farms litigation.” The Open Governmental Proceedings Act sets forth certain requirements with which public agencies must comply when conducting meetings. The purpose of these requirements is to inform the public about governmental decisions, and to allow the public to educate itself and to participate in a meaningful way in the proceedings.
Petitioners appealed from a decision issued by the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, in which the Circuit Court found in favor of the Planning Commission and held that it did not violate the Open Governmental Proceedings Act (“the Act”) in any of the three ways alleged by the Petitioners. The Petitioners specifically identified alleged violations as follows: (1) by failing to provide notice of the settlement discussion as an agenda item in advance of the meeting, as required by W. Va. Code § 6-9A-3; (2) by failing to announce the authority for the Commission to go into executive session for this discussion, as required by W. Va. Code § 6-9A-4(a); and (3) by failing to report the terms of the settlement within a reasonable time of agreement.
In its handling of a settlement agreement, did the planning commission comply with the notice and publication requirements under the Open Governmental Proceedings Act?
The first issue that the Supreme Court of Appeals addressed was whether the Circuit Court erred in finding that no genuine issue of material fact existed with respect to the date on which the Planning Commission reached a settlement agreement on the Far Away Farms litigation. The Supreme Court of Appeals found that even if there was a genuine issue of material fact as to the date when the settlement was finalized, this did not affect the Circuit Court’s ability to assess whether the Planning Commission violated the Act. As such, the Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed the findings of the Circuit Court on this issue.
The second issue that the Supreme Court of Appeals addressed was whether the Planning Commission violated the notice provision of the Act, which requires the Planning Commission to provide a notice and an agenda in advance of the meetings. While the Planning Commission gave notice of its meeting, the Petitioners argued that it did not include any reference to the potential settlement or the litigation that gave rise to the settlement. The Planning Commission argued that such an agenda had been provided, with an agenda item titled “Reports from Legal Counsel and legal advice to PC.” The Petitioners argued this was insufficient notice to satisfy the statutory requirements. The Supreme Court of Appeals agreed with the Petitioners, and found that the notice provided was insufficient to satisfy both the letter and the spirit of the requirement. They discussed that the purpose of the notice requirement, and that an agenda must be provided as well, is to foster public involvement in governmental proceedings and to give the public the opportunity to inform itself about pending issues and make educated responses. The agenda item referencing legal counsel or legal advice did not allow the public to know that the underlying litigation regarding Far Away Farms would be included in any such legal discussions, and was therefore inadequate. The Circuit Court’s finding to the contrary was reversed.
The Supreme Court of Appeals then went on to examine the issue of whether the Planning Commission failed to properly announce the authorization for the executive session that it held. The Act requires that the presiding officer of a meeting of a public agency announce the authority granted by the Act that permits an executive session to take place during the otherwise open meeting. Executive sessions may be held if confidential matters must be discussed. Legal matters qualify as confidential matters. The evidence showed that the presiding officer at the meeting announced the closed executive session “to discuss legal matters.” As such, the Circuit Court had determined that there had been no violation of the authorization provision. The Supreme Court of Appeals agreed, and affirmed the Circuit Court’s finding that the Planning Commission had not violated the authorization provision of the Act.
The next issue that the Supreme Court of Appeals addressed was whether the Planning Commission violated the Act by failing to report the terms of the Far Way Farms settlement agreement within a “reasonable time” of reaching the agreement. The Act requires public agencies to report to the public the terms of any settlement agreement entered into by the agency “within a reasonable time after the settlement is concluded.” The Circuit Court determined that the Planning Commission had complied with this requirement because it included the settlement terms in the court order approving the settlement, which became a matter of public record once it was entered on August 3, 2011. The Petitioners argued that this was not an appropriate reporting, and the Supreme Court of Appeals agreed. In reaching their conclusion, the Supreme Court of Appeals found that, because the settlement agreement was non-confidential, the Act clearly required the Planning Commission to both report the parties’ settlement terms and also enter the terms into the minutes of the Planning Commission meeting. The Planning Commission only referenced the settlement in its meeting minutes, but did not include any discussion of the terms of the agreement. The Supreme Court of Appeals recognized that the Planning Commission disclosed the settlement agreement, but did not comply with the requirement that the terms be entered into meeting minutes. As such, the Planning Commission violated this aspect of the reporting requirement of the Act, and the Supreme Court of Appeals reversed the Circuit Court’s finding that the Commission had complied.
Finally, the Supreme Court of Appeals went on to state that, just because there had been some violations of the Open Governmental Proceedings Act, this did not necessarily require the invalidation of all of the decisions reached at the meeting, and remanded the case back to the Circuit Court of Jefferson County for further proceedings consistent with these findings.
Because this was a memorandum decision, it will not have a sweeping effect. Despite this, it does provide us with helpful guidance.
This memorandum decision reminds us that the Supreme Court will always look first to the plain language of a statute to determine whether a violation has occurred. When something is clearly established as a requirement under an applicable statute, a party will be required to comply, even if it may seem trivial or that the ultimate purpose could be accomplished through other means. Parties may not pick and choose what aspects of statutory requirements they will fulfill.
This decision also informs us what consequences may result if public agencies that do not fully comply with the requirements set forth in the statute. Though trial courts will be expected to identify all instances of noncompliance, this ruling makes clear that noncompliance does not automatically invalidate decisions made by the public agency. The decision did not provide examples of circumstances which might lead to invalidation of a substantive decision so, unfortunately, some public agencies may continue to take their chances by complying with only some aspects of the statute.