Task Forces Legal, Says Town Attorney

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The Payson Town Attorney's office released an official six-page opinion on whether the mayor's task forces are in violation of state statute, town code and open meeting laws.

According to Town Attorney Sam Streichman's findings, the citizen-led committees, in their present incarnations, are in compliance with state law.

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Sam Streichman

"We will continue to monitor the activities that are taking place in town," Streichman said. "Based on changing facts, we'll supplement our findings as necessary."

Streichman based his conclusions on two legal precedents.

"(The council) didn't vote to create (the task forces) and set out their functions," he said. "And, the mayor did not propose (task force) members to the council and have the council vote."

The Open Meeting Law protects private citizens. It forces elected and appointed officials to hold public meetings and requires that records derived from those meetings are accurate and available.

"To subject yourself to the Open Meeting Law, you have to be a public body or an official arm of a public body," Streichman said.

State statute defines two types of official bodies, both required to issue public notices and publish minutes.

An advisory committee must be officially created -- by the town council --for the specific purpose of providing direction. For instance, the Planning and Zoning Commission holds public hearings and passes its findings along to the council. Because of the commission's vested authority, its duties, membership and scope of power are outlined in the Unified Development Code.

The legal definition of a public body hinges on council approval and appointment.

Beyond that, an official task force must meet four criteria: The council has to approve the committee, vote on the number of members, appoint each member and define a specific function.

"Although the mayor does not have the authority to establish official committees, there is no prohibition in state law or the Town Code that prohibits him, a council member or any other member of the public from creating his/her own advisory groups.

"In fact, one of the responsibilities of the mayor (unlike the six council members) is to make recommendations and suggestions to the council. How the Mayor chooses to gather information for such recommendations and suggestions is a matter for his/her discretion."

Members of the public have criticized the mayor's task forces for meeting behind closed doors and using town resources, specifically staff time. But, Streichman added, these task forces are private residents working together, not unlike the Rodeo Committee, to provide public input.

And that's what town staff does -- it answers to the populace, he said.

Meanwhile, Jack Monschein, Payson Town Manager from 1979 to 1990, said the Open Meeting Law debate has raged since he ran the town.

"People were complaining about it back then," he said.

Mayor Bob Edwards said he's ready to move on.

The most recent controversy started in June 2006, after Edwards formed his own task forces.

He identified civic issues that he felt required extra attention and chose individuals in the community who could volunteer their time.

"We have limited town staff, but we have a ton of talent in town," he said. From there, the chairs assembled volunteers to provide the research.

Edwards said the council can either ignore the findings or act on them. Before a motion makes it to the dais, it passes by the town attorney's desk and through the appropriate department. And then it's presented before the public.

Andrea Esquer of the attorney general's office said the state agency has not received any Open Meeting Law complaints against the Payson Town Council.

-- To reach Felicia Megdal call 474-5251 ext. 116 or e-mail fmegdal@payson.com.

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