Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Open Meetings: A Case Study

by Judy Nadler

The Mills city council was set to vote on its general plan, a decision which is made after months of studies, public hearings, and written testimony. Most parts of the plan were straightforward, but the community was split over the decision to rezone land designated for single homes to allow for higher density multi-use development. Some citizens argued that the development would put too much strain on the city's resources, and those who lived near the site objected to what they perceived as crowding. Others argued that the city needed more low-cost housing to more of those who worked in the city to actually live in the city. Council members were equally divided over the decision and were anxious to craft a compromise that would appease all parties.

Because a portion of the controversial property was to be purchased by the city for a small park, the city attorney authorized a "closed" or executive session. Such a session is allowable under open meeting laws when negotiations regarding real property are discussed so that information about which land the city may purchase does not encourage speculation and inflate the cost of the real estate.

Following the session, the council emerged with what appeared to be a consensus on the rezoning. They had decided to allow for the development. This left those who had opposed the project wondering if the discussion included the rezoning as well as the land purchase. Members of the audience, including several planning commissioners, objected and demanded to know what additional evidence or testimony had been introduced to produce the compromise.

Did this executive session violate the spirit of transparency in government decision making?

Read an Introduction to Open Meetings, Sunshine Laws, and Transparency in Government

Read a Framework for Ethical Decision making

Judy Nadler is senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

March 10, 2006


New Materials

Center News