Thanks to the combined efforts of Common Cause Nebraska, Senator Ernie Chambers, and the Nebraska press, among others, MECA, the entity that manages Omaha’s CenturyLink Center and other city venues, is finally subject to state Sunshine Laws!
On October 29, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson issued an opinion stating that MECA should be considered a hybrid public/private entity and that it has to obey both state open meetings and open records laws. This is a win for Nebraskans, making it clear that the “private” label isn’t enough to hide government business.
In 2013, members of the Nebraska press brought to Common Cause’s attention that they were unable to obtain records from MECA regarding a possible conflict of interest with one of the organization’s board members. MECA argued that they were entirely private and not subject to disclosure and transparency laws. This wasn’t Common Cause’s first time addressing the organization, as we had requested an opinion from the NE Attorney General in 2010 to determine if MECA was a private or public entity.
In response, Common Cause Nebraska worked with state Senator Ernie Chambers to bring a bill in the Nebraska Unicameral that would require entities like MECA to follow state sunshine laws. When the bill stalled in committee, we proposed that the Senator request an opinion from the Nebraska AG regarding the status of MECA. Senator Chambers agreed to continue the effort, so Common Cause met with AG Peterson, gave him the preliminary details and made our initial argument that MECA was a hybrid Public/Private organization and should be required to follow the law. Finally, we aided the Senator in composing the request letter, which he filed with the AG’s office.
Now, in 2015, we’ve received Peterson’s opinion, which found that hybrid entities can be required to follow open meetings and public records laws by applying a test aimed at determining how ingrained the public nature of the entity is.
The test considers several factors:
- Whether the private entity performs a government function
- The level of government funding
- Extent of government involvement or regulation
- Whether the private entity was created by the government
After applying the test to MECA’s situation, the AG found that the organization was sufficiently public and should follow all state transparency laws! Important factors in the determination included the fact that MECA’s board of directors are selected by the Omaha city council and mayor, as well as the fact that MECA was only created after a vote of the people.
At the end of the day, Common Cause is proud to have helped the public win over interests that wanted to keep MECA’s records hidden.