The Arizona Attorney General's office has launched an investigation into whether the Payson Town Council broke the state's open meeting law during a lunch meeting last year where the councilors discussed how to get rid of the town manager.
Investigators from the AG's office have already interviewed several council members about the private, unnoticed meeting held at the Arizona League of Towns and Cities convention in Scottsdale last August.
The investigation was triggered several weeks ago when former Payson chief financial officer Glenn Smith filed a formal complaint with the state, after the town had allegedly ignored his complaints.
A spokesman for the AG's office confirmed the investigation is underway and suggested it may take some weeks to reach a conclusion. If the AG's office finds a violation, penalties range from requiring the council members to attend classes, to fines and even setting aside any actions taken based on what took place in an illegal meeting.
The meeting last year preceded a controversial series of personnel decisions made by the council. Among the actions that allegedly flowed from the meeting was the elimination of the town's human resources department, which forced the ousting of HR Director Robert Smith -- who is Glenn Smith's son. In addition, Town Manager Fred Carpenter resigned a year ahead of his planned retirement.
The council in public session approved the elimination of the human resources department, gave Smith a severance package and left him on the payroll through February. He now works for a bank in Flagstaff. The council also offered Carpenter a severance that amounted to about eight months salary and benefits. He's now an events D.J. and radio show host living in Payson. The council never offered any public explanation for either of the changes.
The council made then-finance director Debra Galbraith the interim town manager, human resources director and finance officer after forcing out the other two administrators. Last month, the council approved a permanent $129,000 annual contract for Galbraith and approved the hiring of a new finance manager. The town continues to operate without a human resources director.
State law does allow town councils to discuss personnel matters in closed, executive sessions, but only when it provides public notice of those sessions and takes any subsequent action in public.
"There's no question it was an illegal meeting," said one town councilor who spoke off the record because the incident remains under investigation.
"We were told the year previously by the town attorney that the Attorney General's office turns a blind eye to councils meeting with a quorum during the League of Cities meeting," said another council member. "So we didn't see anything wrong with it."
All seven members of the town council allegedly attended the meeting, called by Mayor Bob Edwards, who submitted his $95 tab for reimbursement without listing the people at the meeting or the purpose of the meeting on the receipt, said Smith.
All the council members contacted for this article requested that their comments remain off the record until the AG's office has determined whether the meeting was illegal. Several recalled discussing Carpenter, but others said they didn't remember whether they also talked Smith.
Glenn Smith said he filed the complaint because Mayor Edwards and the town council had ignored his repeated efforts to confirm the meeting had taken place. Smith retired last June.
He said the town's charter gives the council the power to fire the town manager, but not the human resources director. So to get rid of him the council instead exercised its power to abolish the department.
The council voted 4-3 to eliminate the human resources department and give Smith five months of salary, he said.
Smith said he was driven to file the complaint by a sense of justice -- and by the council's refusal to respond to his questions.
"I've been in this business for 40 years," said Smith, who took up scenic photography after he retired last year and whose work is now displayed in local galleries. "and I know you can't do that.
"And I don't like it when they will not say ‘yes, we did meet and we did this or we did that.' It's just wrong for elected officials to play these kinds of games."