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Problematic Agenda Items

In any training session on the Open Meetings Act, you’ve been told of the possible consequences of willful violations of the Act, including fines, jail time, lawsuits, and invalidation of any board action taken if not in compliance. You’ve likely heard that improperly worded board meeting agenda items can be some of the worst offenders, which is why it’s so important that they be done correctly.

The Act states that agendas “…shall identify all items of business to be transacted by a public body at a meeting…” Additionally, case law has established that the agenda must be “worded in plain language, directly stating the purpose of the meeting, in order to give the public actual notice,” and that “language used should be simple, direct and comprehensible to a person of ordinary education and intelligence.” If an agenda item is deceptively worded, or if it materially obscures the stated purpose of the meeting, it will be considered a willful violation of the Act.

Such was the case in early-December when a District Court judge in Cleveland County determined that the City of Norman had violated the Act with respect to the following agenda item from its June 16, 2020, special meeting of the City Council:

“Consideration and adoption of the FYE 2021 City of Norman proposed operating and capital budgets and the Norman Convention and Visitors Bureau, Inc., budget with detailed annual plan of work.”

The vote taken under this agenda item resulted in a budget cut of $865,000 to the Norman Police Department. Afterward, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) sued the City of Norman alleging, among other things, a violation of the Act. The FOP argued that there was not sufficient notice provided on the agenda for the public to know that a potential defunding could occur.

Judge Thomas Baldwin agreed with the FOP, finding that an individual reading the agenda language in question would not have understood that the vote could result in a modification, reallocation or defunding of the police department’s budget. As a result, the Council’s action was invalidated.  

Although this isn’t a school issue, it is a good example of why it’s critical for public boards to use the utmost of care when crafting meeting agendas. The potential costs of litigation, stress, time spent, and damage to public perception can serve as a cautionary tale.

Terri Thomas

Director, Legal Services

Terri Thomas serves as Director of Legal Services for OPSRC. Ms. Thomas is an attorney practicing exclusively in the area of Oklahoma school law, with a primary focus on rural and smaller school districts. Prior to OPSRC, she served as legal counsel for the Organization of Rural Oklahoma Schools (OROS).

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