GREENFIELD — The Hancock County Council violated the state Open Door Law in July when it illegally convened a meeting of the council during a committee meeting, the state’s public access counselor has ruled.
During a meeting of the Hancock County Budget, Efficiency and Revenue Committee on July 1, the Hancock County Council was called into session and unanimously passed an increase to the county’s income tax rate. The council re-voted on the measure at a meeting nine days later.
The Daily Reporter submitted a formal complaint to the Office of the Public Access Counselor, alleging the county violated the Open Door Law by failing to post adequate notice of the council meeting. Governing boards have to give at least 48 hours notice to the public about an open meeting.Luke Britt, the public access counselor, issued an advisory opinion on Friday agreeing with the Daily Reporter’s assertion. The Hancock County Council disputed the Daily Reporter’s claim of an Open Door Law violation in a response submitted to the public access counselor by county attorney Scott Benkie.
The county’s budget committee, which for years had met in the basement of the Hancock County Jail, is made up of the county council and county commissioners, but it can only make recommendations to the full council, according to a 2012 Hancock County resolution. The county posts separate annual notices of the county council’s regularly scheduled meetings and monthly budget committee meetings.
Bill Bolander, county council president, previously told the Daily Reporter that he called the council into session during the committee meeting — which he said is also a meeting of the full council — to “save a little time” during the council’s all-day budget meeting the next week. For months, county officials had discussed raising the tax rate by 0.2 percentage points to fund a new county jail that could cost up to $43 million.
Benkie wrote in the council’s response to the complaint that the county gave adequate notice to the public about the committee meeting, adding that the county advertises the panel’s meetings, emphasizing “regularly scheduled.”
“I do not believe the Hancock County Council has committed a violation of the Open Door Law,” Benkie wrote.
Britt, however, wrote in the advisory opinion that budget committee meetings are not county council meetings. That’s an important distinction, he said.
“The council’s argument to the contrary is troubling,” Britt wrote. “Moreover, having a full council be on an entire separate committee is a recipe for confusion and defeats the purpose of committees.”
The advisory opinion later reads that the county providing notice of the committee meeting is “irrelevant because the council is required to post public notice of its meetings 48 hours in advance.”
“A council cannot simply gavel in to a committee meeting and slip an ordinance through without notice. The access laws do not exist so that governing bodies can find loopholes to subvert their purpose in the name of ‘convenience’ and ‘efficiency,’” Britt wrote. “Furthermore, votes on ordinances are not a ‘formality’ as the council suggests. They go through a rigid reading process and should be promulgated in the full light of day, and not thrown off as a casual missive in a jail basement.”
Bolander told the Daily Reporter on Tuesday that he still believes the council did not violate the Open Door Law. He said the council and the public access counselor have “differing opinions.”
Shortly after the council redid the vote on the tax increase on July 10, it also changed its committee meeting notice. Now, those meetings are advertised as “The Hancock County Budget, Efficiency and Revenue Committee and Council Meeting.” And instead of the meetings being held in the basement of the jail, the committee will meet in the Hancock County Commissioners’ Courtroom.