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Open-government law now defines 'emergency' meeting

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For years, West Virginia's Open Meetings Act has allowed state agencies, boards and commissions to call emergency meetings on a moment's notice -- but until now, it never defined what constitutes an emergency.

That changes with passage of HB2747, which spells out circumstances when emergency meetings may be called.

"It passed in the waning hours of the regular session," Ethics Commission Executive Director Joan Parker said of the legislation, which had a final passage vote on the last night of the session, April 13.

Parker said staff with the Ethics Commission worked with Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's office to get the legislation passed.

Under the open meetings law, boards and agencies must publish notice of meetings at least five days in advance of the meeting date, and the notice must include the date, time, location and purpose for the meeting.

Currently the law states, "In the event of any emergency requiring immediate official action, any governing body of the executive branch of the state may file an emergency meeting notice at any time prior to the meeting."

Beyond that, there was nothing in the law to define an emergency.

The new legislation states that "emergency meeting" means any meeting called for the purpose of addressing an unexpected event, which requires immediate attention because it poses:

  • A threat to public health or safety.
  • A threat of damage to public or personal property.
  • A potential material financial loss or other potential substantial harm to a public agency.

Over the years, there have been numerous controversies over whether circumstances leading to the calling of emergency meetings truly constituted emergencies. Most recently, that included state Board of Education meetings regarding the ouster of Jorea Marple as superintendent of schools and the hiring of Jim Phares as her replacement.

The new legislation also clarifies that meeting notices are to be filed electronically on the secretary of state's website, eliminating a requirement that the notices also be published in the State Register.

A separate bill passed during the regular session (HB2542) eliminates the requirement that the Secretary of State's Office publish printed copies of the State Register.

Currently, there are about 30 paid subscriptions to the printed State Register, published weekly since 1982. Those will be phased out by April 2014, according to Tennant spokesman Jake Glance.

The new legislation defining emergency meetings goes into effect July 13.

Parker said the Ethics Commission and Secretary of State's Office will be publicizing the changes to state boards and agencies prior to that date.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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