Did Columbia council members violate the FOIA in writing a joint column?

04/07/2014 4:21 PM

04/07/2014 4:22 PM

This morning, I got an email from a former local elected official who remains active in the community wondering whether four members of Columbia City Council who support building a baseball stadium at the old State Hospital site on Bull Street violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act in the process of writing a joint column that appeared in The State.

Mayor Steve Benjamin and council members Sam Davis, Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan combined to write the column. The four men, who form a majority on the seven-member council, are expected to vote to give final approval to a controversial stadium deal on Tuesday; the same four pushed through initial approval on a 4-3 vote last month.

In their Monday column in The State, the council members outline why they believe it’s important for Columbia to take the risk of backing the ballpark: to give the large mixed-use development proposed for Bull Street a boost, which in turn is expected to transform the Columbia economy.

But did the four council members break the law in the process? Did they meet and discuss this issue in secret?

State law requires that every meeting of a public body be announced and open. That law defines a meeting as any time that a simple majority of a public body convenes, “whether corporal or by means of electronic equipment, to discuss or act upon a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power.” The public body is required to give proper notice (24 hours) to allow the media and the public an opportunity to attend.

I don’t see any FOIA problem. Of course, the highly inquisitive might well ponder whether the mayor and council members might have convened in one place — or by conference call or some other electronic means — to talk about the issue as well as their plans to write the column. Stranger things have happened.

But more than likely, the council members placed this chore in the hands of a capable assistant and speech writer — perhaps one housed in the mayor’s office? — and told him to have at it; just run it by the four “authors” before submitting it to the newspaper for publication. That’s not to say that the writer didn’t talk to each of the council members so he could adequately and accurately characterize why they are supporting the baseball stadium.

I don’t see any foul here. Still, with the advent of electronic communication, these are the kinds of questions people are likely to ask more and more.

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