Star Valley Names Two New Councilors

New council members appointed after secret ballot that may violate open meeting law

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The Star Valley Council needed just 10 minutes and a secret ballot to fill two open council seats by appointing two longtime residents who have each played a role in town affairs already.

The shrunken council voted 3-1 to appoint Nathalie Stroup to a two-year seat. She came in fourth in the just-concluded election that filled three open seats. She also served on the citizens committee that helped draft the town's General Plan.

The council also voted 3-1 to appoint Chris Benjamin to fill out the final month in the term of a council member who resigned. Benjamin headed a task force set up by the town to study regional water issues.

The dissenting councilor had reversed his preference for who should serve the two-year term -- so all four council members voted for the same two candidates. The town clerk tallied up the votes on the unsigned ballots, which left no record of the individual votes. The council did not discuss the applications publicly or interview the candidates, who all submitted brief, one-page letters.

Mayor Chuck Heron said the decision to vote by secret ballot was intended to get the voting done as quickly as possible.

"All it did was expedite the meeting." He said the council members "could vote in their bathrooms" if they wanted to. He then refused to answer any further questions about the vote, saying "this conversation is over. It's done. It's over."

The use of a secret ballot could violate the state's open meeting law, said Arizona Newspaper Association Attorney John Moody, when contacted for an interpretation of the law. Arizona Statute 38-431-01 requires public bodies to deliberate and act in public. The law does allow councils to discuss a few things, like personnel matters and lawsuits, in closed executive sessions, but they must still vote in public, said Moody.

"Although it was all done in public, the public has no way of knowing what decision was made by those council members."

The council had made a public appeal for applications to fill the two vacant positions. Eight people applied for the two seats -- one to serve out the last two years of former councilor Randy White, the other to replace Mary Ann Kotelnicki, who resigned without citing any specific reasons shortly after the election.

The two appointed candidates had both been involved in town affairs.

Stroup, who finished a close fourth in the three-seat primary election, worked on the town's General Plan committee. She first got involved in town politics several years ago, when she complained to the town about a wolf-hybrid dog that was hanging about her house and bothering her horses. In her campaign, she vowed to serve the citizens and ensure Star Valley remains a low-density, residential community where people could have horses and maintain a rural lifestyle. Raised in Rim Country, she lived for a time in the Valley and returned several years ago to Star Valley.

During the election, she emphasized her deep roots, devotion to the community, willingness to listen and passion for Star Valley. In her letter of application, she argued that she had received nearly as many votes as the third-place finisher and therefore could demonstrate community support.

"I enjoy working as a team for the common good for all people," she wrote in her application.

Benjamin will end up serving for just two meetings, although he has already served the community for years. The town council in 2006 asked him to head up a regional water task force, established to foster a discussion of ways to secure future water supplies and push for the "sustainable" use of groundwater. Water issues have remained central to town politics after neighboring Payson's decision to require developers to provide new water for new projects prompted the drilling of the Tower Well.

Benjamin has lived in Star Valley for 28 years and for six years served as a member of the Diamond Star Fire Department Board.

Mayor Chuck Heron thanked the other six candidates who applied and urged them to put their names in for service on various town boards and commissions. All the new council members will end up resigning positions on various town committees to serve on the council.

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