HANCOCK COUNTY — A state official says county leaders erred when they convened a plan commission meeting that incidentally also included a majority of the county commissioners.
Luke Britt, Indiana’s public access counselor, issued an informal opinion earlier this month regarding an executive session held by the Hancock County Area Plan Commission in August. Keely Butrum, a Hancock County Council member, asked Britt to weigh in on the matter.
“I had heard there was a meeting, and I knew the law is pretty specific about the who, what, when, where and whys allowable for meetings, and wanted to bring some clarity to an area where I thought there was maybe some confusion on that,” Butrum said. “I never suspected anyone had bad intentions or business got conducted out of public view; I just wanted to be sure all elected and appointed officials involved are knowledgeable about the specifics we’re held to in those areas.”
Indiana’s Open Door Law requires governing bodies of public agencies to conduct and take official action openly. The law also allows for governing bodies to hold executive sessions closed to the public for one or more specific reasons listed in the statute. The body holding the executive session as well as the date, time, location and reasons must be advertised. Public agencies in Hancock County advertise their meetings in the Greenfield Daily Reporter and post them outside of meeting locations. Officials can invite whomever they want to executive sessions, as long as they’re necessary.
Bill Spalding is a member of the plan commission and a member of the Hancock County Board of Commissioners, and he attended the plan commission’s executive session in August. John Jessup, also on the board of commissioners, attended as well. That created a quorum of commissioners, when the meeting was advertised only for the plan commission.
“This office has maintained that when a majority of one governing body is attending the meeting of another, dual notice should be posted,” Britt wrote. “…Arguably, a commissioner cannot take off that hat when performing as an APC (area plan commission) member due to those duties being inextricably linked.”
Jessup said he didn’t realize his presence at the meeting created an issue.
“I guess I was under the assumption that it was properly advertised,” he said.
He added he didn’t think including the board of commissioners in the advertisement would have been necessary due to Spalding attending as a plan commission member, and himself attending as a commissioner to gather information.
“There was no business transacted, it was information gathering,” Jessup said. “There was nothing nefarious.”
He said that he and other officials will work to ensure executive sessions are properly advertised in the future.
Brand &Morelock, a Greenfield-based law firm, provides legal counsel to the plan commission. One of its lawyers, Chris Isom, was present at the executive session. Gregg Morelock, a partner with the firm, recalled having an experience similar to the Hancock County Area Plan Commission’s with another municipal government and said had Isom had such an experience, he would likely have asked Jessup to leave the executive session.
Minutes from the executive session state its purpose was to discuss roadwork and sensitive matters regarding economic development, which Britt notes are not among the reasons allowed in state law for preventing public observation.
The advertised notice for the meeting, however, states the reason was “for interviews and negotiations pertaining to a local economic development organization that is a nonprofit corporation established under state law whose primary purpose is the promotion of industrial or business development in Indiana, the retention or expansion of Indiana businesses, or the development of entrepreneurial activities in Indiana,” which is one of the permitted reasons.
In his opinion, Britt points to a state law requiring that “minutes from an executive session must identify the subject matter considered by specific reference to the enumerated instance or instances for which public notice was given.”