The Bellevue City Council meets in executive session more often and longer than the other four Sarpy County city governments.
Bellevue council members moved out of the public eye and into closed session on all but one meeting day from September 2012 through May 2013, according to a Bellevue Leader review of published meeting minutes.
Those closed sessions lasted an average of one hour per meeting. Minutes of what happens during an executive session are not kept, which is permitted by state statute. Council members also are prohibited from disclosing the proceedings of those sessions.
The City Council meets twice on meeting days: an afternoon informative session, during which no action can be taken, and the regular evening session, when public hearings are held and votes are taken. All of the closed sessions between September and May took place during the afternoon meetings.
Most of those executive sessions, City Attorney Pat Sullivan said, were scheduled by City Administrator Dan Berlowitz. A council member is required to make a motion, and the council must vote to approve the motion before moving behind closed doors.
Berlowitz said he takes his cue from the City Attorney's Office when placing an executive session item on the agenda.
City Council President Don Preister said sensitive topics, specifically real estate dealings, have prompted the recent stretch of executive sessions. Sullivan said employment negotiations and employee discipline issues are other reasons.
“We have a lot more on our plate than probably most of the other communities do,” Berlowitz said. “I wish we had less, to tell you the truth, but at some point, I think, once we wade through and get a number of these issues resolved, hopefully the necessity or frequency of executive sessions will become less.”
Despite the sensitive topics facing the city, Councilwoman Carol Blood said the council is pushing the limits on the closed session privilege in the Nebraska Open Meetings Act.
“There's been several sessions where I didn't think it was necessary to go into executive session and that it either could have been discussed openly or not at all,” Blood said.
Between September and May, executive sessions were on the agenda at every Bellevue pre-council meeting. In none of those 17 meetings was the subject of the closed session disclosed.
The Papillion City Council, by contrast, moved into closed session at five of 18 meetings in the same time period. The Papillion meeting minutes state the particular subject of the executive session.
With the council moving into closed sessions with such regularity, Preister said, the council needs to keep the public better informed on why it is going behind closed doors.
“Any time something is happening behind closed doors, people wonder what's going on, so I understand the concern,” he said. “If we have not been as specific — and I will assume some responsibility for that — in listing more specificity than we have, I think we can work on doing that in the future.”