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It is fairly common practice for boards and councils to amend their meeting agendas once a meeting has begun without any objections. From now on, we object to the practice.
Public bodies are required to give advance notice not less than 24 hours in advance of a meeting. An agenda for any meeting must be posted as well. Essentially, though, public bodies treat agendas as though they are written in pencil, altering them and making additions well into meetings.
In June, the S.C. Court of Appeals ruled that amending an agenda during a meeting does not jibe with the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The court’s ruling stated, in part “To allow an amendment of the agenda regarding substantive public matters undercuts the purpose of the notice requirement.”
That ruling may necessitate additional meetings to deal with issues or mean some things can’t be dealt with in a timely manner. The court said that doesn’t matter.
“We recognize our decision may be inconvenient in some instances, but the purpose of FOIA is best served by prohibiting public bodies governed by FOIA from amending their agendas during meetings.”
Changing agendas after-the-fact is so commonplace and has gone on for so long we think some public officials honestly did not know that their actions didn’t comport with open government laws.
Oftentimes, issues that are added for discussion once a meeting has begun are fairly benign – a councilman notices a pothole that needs filling or someone has a question about seeing a city-owned vehicle parked somewhere they don’t think it should be.
Sometimes, though, the issues are more substantive. In either case, we think it is probably best going forward for things not listed on the advance agenda to be placed there so we aren’t left to sit and parse what qualified as “substantive.”
The bottom line is, the public has the right to inspect an agenda in advance of a meeting. Those who do may use that agenda to decide whether they are interested in attending the meeting. Adding something once that meeting has begun robs them of that right.
We aren’t attacking elected officials who have sometimes added items to agendas in the past and did so believing they were within their rights. Now that a court has clearly defined what is and is not legal in that respect, though, we hope the practice will end immediately.
Chester News & Reporter on changing agendas at meetings. The News & Reporter is a sister paper to The Lancaster News. Both newspapers are owned by Landmark Community Newspapers Inc.