The Gary/Chicago International Airport authority sought to fend off an inquiry into a possible violation of Indiana's Open Door law when it shut the public out of an April 23 meeting by arguing that no such meeting occurred.
That argument was soundly rejected in an advisory opinion earlier this month by Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, who found that the the airport authority acted contrary to the law by giving improper notice of what was indeed a meeting held at 10 a.m. April 23 at the airport administration building.
"I take every executive session very seriously and if people want to hold them, they have to mind their Ps and Qs," Britt said earlier this week of the opinion.
The April 23 meeting came as the airport authority was dealing with a number of controversies, including a lawsuit from the airport's longest-serving private business and whether to pay pricey airport advisers some $817,000.
Britt's advisory opinion was offered in response to a formal complaint filed by The Times on May 1.
In a May 15 response to Britt's inquiry, airport attorney Lee Lane acknowledged the public notice announcing the meeting had not listed the specific instance contained in the law authorizing the holding of a closed meeting. The Open Door Law requires the inclusion of such language in the notice.
She wrote that the form used to announce the closed meeting of April 23 was not the one the authority customarily uses, which contains check-offs specifically citing the section of the law authorizing the exclusion of the public.
"There was no intent to work around the system or to do something we are not allowed to do," Lane said this week. "It was a mistake. It was just a mistake in the notice."
But Lane attempted to argue further in her response that since only three airport authority members were present, the gathering was not covered by the Open Door Law, so no violation occurred. Those members were board Chairman James Cooper, Alesia Pritchett and Denise Dillard.
That's because the open meeting requirements of the law only apply to gatherings where a majority of the members of the public body are present, she argued. And Indiana statute authorizes a seven-member airport authority.
Lane further argued a fourth member, Shontrai Irving, who phoned in to the meeting, would not count, because the section of the law that permits board members to participate by phone does not apply to airport authorities.
Britt soundly rejected those contentions in his opinion, dedicating the bulk of its three pages to the matter.
He noted that although the board is authorized to have seven members at full strength, it currently only has five actual sitting members. Two seats have been left vacant since the beginning of the year.
Because only five members are currently seated, Britt stated three would constitute a majority.
Britt in his advisory opinion also stated Irving's participation by telephone should be accounted for as one more member present, upping the number of members present to a majority of the board even when at full strength.
"To accept GCIA's (Gary/Chicago International Airport's) interpretation would be authorizing governing bodies to hold telephonic or videoconference discussion sessions behind closed doors," Britt wrote. "This would effectively erode the objective of the Open Door Law itself."
Britt noted he did not think the Gary airport authority acted in bad faith in conducting the meeting.
Lane this week said the airport authority has every intention of complying with Britt's opinion in the future.
She also stated firmly that nothing about the $817,000 in consultant fees due to former Indianapolis Airport CEO John Clark and others was discussed at the April 23 meeting.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss litigation pending or threatened and the job performance evaluation of an employee or employees, Lane said. Both are specifically listed in the Open Door Law as legitimate reasons for holding closed meetings.