SPENCER — An unannounced meeting of Owen County officials held last month at Chambers Smorgasbord to hear a proposal from a payroll company representative did not violate the Indiana Open Door Law.
While Indiana Code 5-14-1.5-1 requires government agencies to conduct meetings publicly and with prior public notice, there are exceptions, according to Hoosier State Press Association legal counsel Steve Key.
Among them: a provision that says elected officials can meet without public notice if the purpose is solely to carry out administrative functions related to routine activities and everyday internal management of the county.
”Saying that the payroll is a routine function of county government and talking to a vendor about the services that could be provided and the cost, if that is the case, I can see an argument to be made that it could fall under the admin functions clause,” Key said.
Several residents complained to The Evening World newspaper in Spencer that the meeting — attended by two county commissioners, three county council members, the county clerk and several other county officials — was not advertised. Key said there is no legal requirement to give the public notice of meetings focused on administrative functions, but residents have a right to be present.
But since no public notice is necessary, finding out about the meetings is happenstance.
”What falls under ‘administrative function’ has always been vague, and it’s tough to know where the Legislature is drawing the line,” Key said. “But these administrative functions meetings are open to the public. They can’t be secret, but are just hard to find out about.”
In most instances, the state’s Open Door Law requires 48-hour advance public notice of meetings where a quorum of the elected members is present.
Had the Chambers Smorgasbord meeting been about salaries or other things that directly affect county workers, that kind of notice would have been required, Key said, since two of the three commissioners were present.
“If it was a meeting to discuss county business, there should have been public notice of the meeting,” he said. “And if it fell under personnel issues, then it would have to be advertised as a executive session.”
The law states that public meetings must be held in a place that is accessible to people with disabilities. The September meeting with the payroll representative was upstairs at Chambers, an area not accessible by wheelchair, so the meeting’s validity could be challenged on that basis.
Owen County Commissioners’ President Jeff Brothers was there, and said no contracts were awarded and that the meeting was “just to receive information.” He said the vendor will present the same proposal during a 6 p.m. public meeting on Oct. 15.