Warrenton will begin removing a standing closed session notice from its agendas — changing a long standing practice of how the city conducts its meetings.
The decision reverses a position held by previous boards that supported including the notice on each agenda even when the board didn’t intend to meet in closed session.
The notice states the board may hold a closed meeting to discuss items related only to personnel, litigation or real estate matters. It was placed on the agenda to comply with the state’s open meetings and records law, more commonly known as the Sunshine Law. An agenda must be posted 24 hours in advance of a meeting, though an open or closed meeting can be scheduled if an emergency situation is deemed necessary.
The board last Tuesday voted 4-2 to begin listing the notice only when city officials know an executive session needs to be held. Ward 1 Aldermen John Cornell and Phil Tallo and Ward 3 Aldermen John Clark and Jim Dreyer voted in support of the change, while Ward 2 Aldermen Fred Flake and Beth Kendall opposed the proposal.
Mayor Jerry Dyer had previously recommended the notice be removed in his second board meeting on May 1 over concerns about public perception of the board constantly meeting in closed session. The suggestion was met with resistance by aldermen, primarily those who have been on the board for several years.
The idea was revisited after Dyer was joined by Director of Operations/Finance Officer Terri Thorn and City Clerk Melody Rugh at a recent Sunshine Law seminar presented by the Missouri attorney general’s office in Wentzville.
The attorney general’s office recommends that any reference to a closed meeting not be on an agenda unless there is an intent to discuss personne, litigation or real estate matters.
“It comes back to perception,” Dyer said. “That is 99 percent of the battle. If this would change that perception, I would be greatly in favor of it.”
Cornell was one of the aldermen who changed his position on the notice. He said he preferred to follow the state’s suggestion and said he had discussed the matter with some residents.
“It appears to them that the city is hiding behind an executive session and not being up front and honest with the agenda,” Cornell stated at the meeting.
That drew responses from both Kendall and Flake, who both felt the notice should remain on the agenda.
“There will be public perception no matter what you do,” Flake remarked. “We don’t do anything illegal. It has been good through the years. We have always followed the law and done the right thing.”
He added, “As far as public perception, by the next morning whatever takes place is usually out on the street, in the coffee shop or in the bars. They get plenty of publicity and they know what is going on.”
Normally, the city posts its board of aldermen agenda the Friday prior to a Tuesday meeting. It would have up to 24 hours in advance of a meeting to amend the agenda if needed to meet the Sunshine Law requirements. A closed meeting could also be held in an emergency situation as long as the reason is noted in the minutes.
Prior to Dyer being elected in April, the Warrenton board typically met in executive session following nearly every open session. However, only a few closed meetings have been held since he’s been sworn in.
City officials noted they could always revert back to listing the notice on all agendas if the new practice doesn’t work as well.
Other municipal governments in the county list the notice only when officials plan for a closed session meeting. In recent years, Truesdale did so upon learning of the attorney general’s recommendation, while Marthasville proceeded with the change following concerns by residents made to then-Mayor Dale Verges about the city scheduling closed session meetings.
The change to how Warrenton handles the closed session notice is one of multiple recommendations from the attorney general’s office the city will begin following.
The city’s department heads will no longer discuss any items that are not listed on a meeting agenda. Instead, an agenda item titled operational updates will be listed on each agenda under the director of operation’s report.
In the past, department heads have covered mostly informational topics that were not listed on the agenda or issues that arose after a meeting agenda had been posted.
Other new guidelines related to dealing with the Sunshine Law include:
• ensuring that charges are consistent among the parties requesting city records.
• instituting a log to list all public records requests received from the various city departments, such as the police department and municipal court.
• making sure the city clerk receives a copy of any email distributed to two or more elected officials.
• designating a Sunshine Law “cop” to monitor and stop discussions that veer off topic and fail to meet closed session requirements. City officials indicated city attorney Chris Graville would fill that role.