Councilors Still Making Excuses For Illegal Session

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Disciplining teenagers is frustrating. Even when the rule is clear and the violation flagrant, the flurry of excuses would be laughable if they weren't so galling.

But that's teenagers. They're still learning to take responsibility. After all, if their brains worked properly -- then we'd probably let them vote and sign contracts.

It's a whole different matter when the town councilors elected to help draw up the rules the rest of us have to live by get caught red handed - and respond with a spew of excuses.

Specifically, we were dismayed that although the Payson Town Council last night voted to accept the Attorney General's findings the council violated the state's open meeting law, comments by council members excused and minimized the offense.

The town council drove the open meeting law into a tree last fall, like a dumb kid in daddy's Caddy. Now, some council members seem to think it was the tree's fault.

To be specific: The whole council gathered for lunch in the course of a private, unannounced, unagendized meeting at a convention of the Arizona League of Cities and Towns to discuss their shared dissatisfaction with the town's management. That discussion led more or less directly to the forced resignation of the then-town manager and also prompted the elimination of the town's personnel department so the council could get rid of the personnel director -- even though it only had the legal authority to fire the town manager. The discussion also most likely led to an agreement to pay those officials six to nine months of salary for doing nothing, in hopes they would go quietly. The details of that buyout were not described clearly in the minutes of the council meeting when it was later quietly approved.

The whole thing might have gone unnoticed, except former finance manager Glenn Smith filed a complaint with the Attorney General's office -- perhaps because one of the officials involved was his son.

Last night, only Councilor Ed Blair had the grace to apologize directly to the citizens for participating in the illegal meeting.

Councilor Mike Vogel dismissed the law as "ridiculous" while invoking irrelevant hypotheticals that suggest he still doesn't understand the importance of the law itself. In previous comments, Councilor Su Connell has said she relied on advice from the town attorney that elected officials were somehow exempt from the law at the League convention. And former Mayor Bob Edwards, has previously dismissed the attorney general's findings as mere politics.

In truth, the open meeting law ensures that the representatives of the public conduct the public's business in the light of day. It attempts to prevent backroom deals that violate the public trust, open the door to corruption and show contempt for the public.

Granted, the provisions of the law protecting the public's rights sometimes create exasperating restrictions.

Public officials can violate the fine print of the law when passing along e-mails, making phone calls to a sequence of four council members or even discussing town business when four council members find themselves hobnobbing at the same charity event.

We remain outspoken in our admiration for the integrity, public spirit, hard work and dedication to the welfare of the town long displayed by every one of the councilors who attended that illegal meeting -- which took place before three of the current council members won their seats.

But in this one case, they have lost sight of the public interest they have so admirably served in so many other ways.

The meeting at the League of Cities convention constituted a flagrant violation of a law that protects the public. True enough, the council got bad advice from the town attorney, who suggested the convention offered some kind of weird exemption to the law. But even if you grant the bad legal advice, the other council members involved in that meeting should have followed Councilor Blair's example and taken responsibility. They owe the public at least that courtesy -- especially if they're in the business of adopting ordinances that the rest of us have to obey.

The laws that prevent backroom deals and protect the public's right to follow the decision making process aren't silly technicalities: They're fundamental to the long and successful functioning of a great democracy. The public officials who accept the weighty responsibility of protecting those traditions and the rights have a sacred obligation.

And once they get behind the wheel -- drunk or sober -- they're responsible.

It's unseemly, to still be blaming the tree.

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