Olentangy Valley News

Council hopes to expand use of closed sessions

Charter amendment could allow executive sessions when new businesses are involved

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

Powell City Council members say a ballot proposal to expand the rights of city officials to discuss matters in private executive sessions could lead to increased economic development.

At a Feb. 5 meeting, council voted 6-1 to send the proposed policy to the ballot.

It's one of seven proposed changes to the city charter to be placed on the ballot in May or November; a final ballot date has not been chosen. All seven proposals were approved at the meeting.

Mayor Richard Cline said the amendment governing executive-session rules would lay out additional grounds on which council discussions can remain confidential.

If it's approved by voters, council could enter executive session to discuss an item if four out of seven council members agree it's necessary.

State laws dictate city matters must be aired in open meetings except when specific types of private information is at hand, including sensitive personnel data.

In those instances, council may enter executive session for discussion, though all formal action, including votes, must be made in a public meeting.

Cline said the proposed amendment would allow council to meet privately when courting new businesses. Those discussions can involve confidential financial information.

"There's going to be a give-and-take discussion of those things and the applicant may not be willing to have those discussions in a public session, because it may include trade secrets or business plans or procedures that would give their competitors an advantage," Cline said.

Councilman Tom Counts said being privy to all pertinent financial documents would give the city a leg up when considering a tax-incentive agreement.

City Attorney Gene Hollins said the amendment also would expand council's right to discuss litigation privately.

Councilwoman Sara Marie Brenner cast the sole vote against the ballot proposal.

"There are a lot of people who want more transparency," she said. "They want to see what's going on in government. They want to know there's no back-room dealing happening."

Cline said transparency is a concern.

"There's no doubt that when council goes into executive session, it invites some members of the community to speculate about why we're in there and what we're doing," he said.

"But we can lessen that suspicion by requiring that there's a publicly debated ordinance that establishes the categories of topics that may be discussed (in executive session.)"

Hollins said neighboring communities have passed similar charter amendments, adding, "there's a sense out there that your community should be able to compete in the open marketplace."

Also at the Feb. 5 meeting, council wrapped up a discussion on an amendment to curb absenteeism by council members.

If approved by voters, the amendment would allow council to declare a seat vacant if a member is absent from meetings for two consecutive months.

It also would clarify council's right to have a member removed from council chambers for the duration of a meeting for "disorderly conduct."

"This is a deliberative body, and this goes to actions that disrupt our ability to deliberate," Counts said.

Brenner cast the sole vote against the amendment, stating she's been the victim of "political vendettas" in the past.

Other amendments approved for the ballot could:

* Extend term lengths for members of the city's Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals from three to four years.

* Streamline rules for seeking and awarding contracts for public improvements.

* Establish a review of the charter at least once every 10 years.

* Clarify the procedure for the filing and consideration of a referendum on a city ordinance.

* Align the city's conflict-of-interest policy for city officials with corresponding state laws.

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