There were no clear winners when the New Orleans City Council and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson pulled Senate Bill 583 last week, killing it for this year's legislative session. Touted as a "clarification" of the state's Open Meetings Law, the bill drew fire from media and others because it would allow public bodies of four or fewer committee members to meet informally to discuss public business, provided no decisions or votes were taken.
City Council President Arnie Fielkow and other council members argued that a narrow interpretation of the current law would bar almost any two council members from discussing council business in private because the governing body's committees consist of three members each. Council Chief of State Evelyn Pugh, a veteran of City Hall and an attorney, supported the council's interpretation of the law.
"The council has long been concerned that its unique three-member committee structure presents a legal issue that has never been directly addressed in the law," Pugh said. "Out of an abundance of caution, the council has even avoided meeting in groups of two when both members sit on the same standing committee."
Critics of the bill disagreed, saying the current law allows casual discussions by two members of a public body. They also feared that amending the statewide application of the Open Meetings Law to address a New Orleans situation would only encourage police juries and parish councils elsewhere to form committees of four or fewer to circumvent the law.
Peterson introduced the bill at the request of the City Council, but seemed only too happy to withdraw it in the face of growing opposition. Pugh noted that the decision to pull the bill came after council members realized that "continuing to push for this clarification in the law may undermine the public's trust, which this council has worked so hard to cultivate."
While the withdrawal of Peterson's bill appeared to be a victory for open meetings advocates, the council's dilemma remains — along with the increased possibility that council members will meet in groups of two, as suggested by critics of the bill. — Clancy DuBos