A guide to executive sessions
Anytime you hear about someone holding a secret meeting, it always makes it more interesting, even if the subject matter may not be anything newsworthy. That tends to be the case with executive sessions in town government. The more secretive they are, the more intrigued the public will become. However, those executive sessions are held for a reason which Town Attorney Chris Jarboe discussed with the Board of Finance Tuesday night.
"The whole reason you are going into executive session is because you think that there is something that would be beneficial to the town, at least for the moment, to keep confidential," Jarboe said.
He cited five scenarios under the Freedom of Information Act that would allow a public agency to go into executive session. One reason concerns the matter of appointment, employment, performance, evaluation, health or dismissal of a public officer or employee. That meeting can be held in public session if the employee or public officer in question requests to do so.
"That is a category that involves the discussion of salaries," Jarboe added. "So if you are going to be debating someone's salary, whether their performance has merited an increase, that is something you might go into executive session for."
Another reason concerns strategy and negotiation involved with pending claims or pending litigation.
"The limiting factor here is you can only [hold executive session] until the claim has been adjudicated or settled," Jarboe said. "At that point, it is no longer appropriate to go into executive session."
The third reason involves issues with security or the deployment of security personnel, or devices involved with public security. The fourth reason deals with sales and negotiation prices with construction or real estate. It is appropriate to hold executive session if the information discussed could drive the price of that specific sale up if released.
The fifth reason is the tricky one, according to Jarboe. It states that executive session can be held if the "discussion of any matter which would result in the disclosure of exempt public records or the information contained therein."
There are 25 exempt public records ranging from medical files, law enforcement records in relation to sensitive cases and informants, trade secrets like formulas, patters or techniques to record relating to collective bargaining.
As far as the procedure to go into executive session, any public agency has to go into the session with an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the present members and they must state the reason for the session as well. Jarboe added that voting cannot take place while in executive session and minutes cannot be recorded.
When asked who is allowed within an executive session, Jarboe said only those who may have an opinion on the issue being discussed. He also added that anything discussed while in executive session is generally considered confidential and cannot be shared with those not in the session, though he said the sharing of the information is not necessarily specifically covered by the Freedom of Information Act.
"Well, that is not something specifically covered by the Freedom of Information Act. But I think it is implicit that the discussion that is occurring in executive session is supposed to be confidential," Jarboe said. "And there are some general statements in the Town Code of Ethics that govern the conduct of all town employees and officials that could be interpreted as saying that they can't use confidential information of the town in an improper manner."