I think I've mentioned before that one of the reasons I don't name names in my blog is because there are times I worry if I'm getting the whole story from those who call me. We all remember that old game of telephone, where the details get fuzzier and fuzzier the further down the line the story is passed.
For example, a caller this week was telling me about a city council that is closing meetings to discuss sending employees to out-of-town training sessions. Can they do that, I was asked? Of course not, I replied. That doesn't fit within any exception whatsoever under the sunshine law. What reason did they give that they thought permitted this, I asked back?
The response was that the city attorney said there was private employee information involved. For example, if the seminar was to help an employee gain skills they didn't have but needed to progress in their job, couldn't that be "individually identifiable personnel records ... or records pertaining to employees...." under paragraph 13 of 610.021?
Well, first I always point out, that paragraph relates SOLELY to records. It doesn't seem to give any credence to the argument that it can be used to close meetings. It talks only about closing records. At the same time, I know public bodies use it to close meetings all the time. So far it's never been challenged in court.
But, let's say, for argument purposes only, that this exception COULD be used to close meetings. Could you then use it to close a meeting to talk about sending an employee to a remedial training program? Well, if it is about an employee who is being told to go take training as part of a disciplinary action, I think you'd be better to close the meeting under paragraph 3 of 610.021. (Besides, that clearly is a MEETING exception, so you wouldn't have the earlier issue I mentioned here.) What if it is about an employee with a drinking or drug problem and you are sending them to a program to dry out? I suspect a court would be much more open to such an argument and might agree to slip it in under this paragraph, assuming, again, that the court can get over this issue of it being a "record" exception.
But if it is just to talk about sending Johnny out of town to take a training program on learning how to use Excel or how to do a Power Point presentation, then I cannot fathom how a city attorney could claim that this falls within any right to privacy that would warrant discussing this expenditure of public funds in a closed meeting. Public employees give up substantial rights to privacy when they take jobs as public employees and one of those rights is that the public, who in truth is your Employer, has the right to know what the funds are used for when they are going to pay for your training.
All I can hope is that this particular reporter got the story wrong. If the story is right, then this is a city attorney who needs a little Sunshine Law training and quickly!