Council caucus may have violated Open Door Law

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A caucus called during a Washington County Council meeting caused a possible violation of the state’s Open Door Law.

The caucus was called during the Tuesday, Jan. 3, meeting. The council was considering a request from County Clerk Sarah Milligan to increase the salaries paid to employees in her office to help attract qualified candidates.

Milligan’s request was the focus of most of the meeting, with council members sympathizing with her office’s loss of four veteran employees; however, council members were concerned raising the salaries in one office would be unfair to other county offices that face the same problem.

Mark Clark, the council’s attorney, said the council could opt to call a caucus, telling them they could only discuss “political strategy.” Also, he advised the meeting would have a time limit and no decisions could be made during the caucus.

By majority vote, the council opted to hold the caucus. Council members left the room and met behind closed doors during the caucus. Once the meeting reconvened, a motion was made and a vote was held denying the salary increases.

When asked about the legality of the caucus, Steve Key, who serves as executive director and general counsel for Hoosier State Press Association, said “The caucus exception was created to deal with the state legislature, where caucuses have a need to meet in secret to discuss political strategy concerning position on particular bills, who will speak and what the message will be.” He continued that the caucus could have been used if the matter faced a “bitter division” among council meetings, at which time separate caucuses could have been held to discuss political strategy – but that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Jan. 3 caucus since all council members met in the same caucus.

Key continued, “While acting on the advice of the attorney and with no malice intended, I would argue that they held an improper executive session in the middle of a public meeting - violating the Open Door Law.”

Clark disagrees with Key’s assessment.

“While I respect Mr. Key’s position, I would point out that the statutory sections of IC 5-14-1.5 make no such distinctions and do not specify that a political body made up of one party cannot have a caucus,” he said. “…While it is clear that the purpose of IC 5-14-1.5 is to allow official actions to take place in an open meeting available to all people of this state, the council took no final action or decision making process in the caucus and made its decision in the open session of the regular meeting of the council.”

When asked about Key’s response, Todd Ewen, the council president, declined to comment.

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