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Training sessions may be recorded

Audit spurs proposed change to law on closed meetings

In response to a recent audit that highlighted multiple problems with the way some school boards were conducting closed meetings, legislators may begin requiring recordings of executive sessions and training for newly elected officials.

The proposed amendments to the closed meeting law will ideally provide more clarity for government bodies, said Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, who has drafted a bill for the 2006 general session. Although the amendments were prompted by the audit of school board meetings, they will apply to all public meetings, from mosquito abatement boards to legislative committees.

"I think this will guarantee greater compliance, and not just for school boards," Harper said during a Wednesday morning meeting of the Government Operations Interim Committee.

The Utah Open Meetings Act allows public bodies to close meetings for a few reasons, including discussing the character, competence or health of an individual, or holding strategy sessions on collective bargaining, property sales, leases or exchanges, and lawsuits. However, an audit released in July by the Legislative Auditor General's Office found some school boards were inappropriately closing meetings, and eight boards were not keeping minutes of the closed sessions.

Most notable among the amendments would be the requirement that all closed meetings would have to be recorded, a change from the current law that requires either recording of the meeting or manually transcribed minutes. The recordings would remain private, although they would be available if a judge needed to decide whether the closed meeting was proper, and would not be required in personnel discussions.

The proposal would also not impact caucus meetings at the Legislature, which are exempted from the open meetings law.

Other amendments would require newly elected officials to be trained on the open meetings law within 60 days of their election and for the Utah Attorney General to produce an annual summary of the open meetings law, along with any changes.

While a majority of the committee members seemed to support the changes, there were some concerns the requirements could stifle discussion of sensitive topics because of worries that the tapes could become public.

"The record may be private and protected," Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said. "But it's really strange — those records usually get out."