The Star Valley Council did break the state’s open meeting law two times in two years, the Gila County attorney’s office has determined after a six-month investigation.
However, former Mayor Chuck Heron did not violate the law when he made repeated changes to then-Town Manager Vito Tedeschi’s employment contract that rapidly increased the manager’s compensation, the investigation concluded.
The county attorney’s office found the council broke the law twice by not listing the topic of an executive session, but decided not to file charges providing the council reveals the topic of that discussion and undergoes training in the open meeting law.
Although the attorney’s office found no evidence of fraud, Councilor Gary Coon on Wednesday tried in vain to convince the council to conduct its own forensic audit to determine whether any town officials had broken the law.
However, the rest of the council rejected Coon’s plea for an investigation following a two-hour executive session Wednesday night. Coon said the town would collapse unless the council investigated key financial decisions and determined whether fraud had occurred. However, Coon’s motion to launch an investigation “to protect our citizens and their taxes” died for lack of a second.
Coon had also raised questions about fraud in his conversations with Gila County Chief Deputy Attorney Bryan Chambers. But in an Aug. 24 letter, Chambers concluded “at this time, however, we see no justification to request further law enforcement investigation or to pursue criminal charges.”
Chambers did, however, find that the town had violated the open meeting law as a result of not listing the topic of two executive sessions before meeting behind closed doors. This represents the second finding of an open meeting law violation in a year. In July, the state Attorney General’s Office concluded the town violated the law when the council discussed former town manager Lanny Sloan’s employment in a 2006 executive session.
The most recent investigation was triggered by a Feb. 3 letter Councilor Coon wrote to Chambers, alleging the town had repeatedly violated the open meeting law, IRS rules and regulations, and town code by making changes to former town manager Vito Tedeschi’s contract.
In a meeting with Chambers, Coon also alleged that fraud may have occurred and “consequently justice needed to be served.”
Coon’s first allegation centered on changes Heron approved in Tedeschi’s employment contract without receiving specific approval of the council at a public meeting.
However, Chambers said the changes didn’t violate the law, according to an Aug. 24 letter to Town Attorney and Manager Tim Grier. He detailed several reasons for his finding.
First, Chambers said Heron might have exceeded his authority delegated to him by the council, but he did not violate the open meeting law.
Secondly, Chambers noted that Heron had general authorization from the council to “initiate any personnel action” regarding Tedeschi’s contract.
“If ‘initiate any personnel action’ actually gave Heron authority to do what he did, there would clearly be no Open Meeting Law violation in his actions,” Chambers wrote in the letter.
Coon also asserted that the council improperly approved Tedeschi’s employment contract on June 17, 2008 by including it as a consent agenda item subject to a single vote on a group of issues rather than listing it as a separate agenda item. Coon said the item wasn’t routine and thus shouldn’t have been on the consent agenda.
Coon wrote, “there would be no logical explanation for treating this as a consent agenda item except to take advantage of the inexperience of four new members at their first meeting and to intentionally slip this addendum through unnoticed without separate discussion or separate vote.”
Again, the attorney’s office found no violation of the law.
If a councilor had questioned the change, the item could have been removed from the list and discussed. However, no council member objected.
“Whether or not this procedure ‘took advantage of the inexperience of four new members at their first meeting,’ it did not violate the Open Meeting Law,” Chambers concluded.
Although the attorney’s office did not find any violations relating to Coon’s allegations, investigators did find two, non-related open meeting infringements.
The first occurred on May 1, 2007 when the council went into executive session. Although the town posted an agenda for the council meeting including notice of the executive session, they did not properly explain why they needed the session.
“Thus, the public had no knowledge before, during or after the executive session as to why the council went into executive session,” Chambers said.
The open meeting law states that council members must hold public discussions and vote on key issues in public only after listing the issue under consideration on a public agenda. The council can discuss lawsuits and personnel matters in closed, executive session, but only after listing the time, place and date of the session together with the topic under discussion.
The council can only make an actual decision by public vote in a public session after the executive session.
During this session, the attorney’s office found the council made at least one comment that had nothing to do with legal advice and related to the regular council meeting, which is a violation.
The second executive session violation occurred on April 15, 2008 when the council again gave no notice of why it was entering executive session, thus leaving the public in the dark.
“Because neither of these agendas provided a sufficient ‘general description of the matters to be considered,’ both executive sessions were held in violation of Arizona’s Open Meeting Law,” Chambers said.
Because the town is young and most of the officials were relatively inexperienced when the violations occurred, the attorney’s office decided not to file a suit in Superior Court.
The town must, however, agree to publish amended agendas for the two executive sessions, provide the public with the content of the discussion that occurred on May 1 that had nothing to do with legal advice and receive Open Meeting Law training within the next six months.
In a press release, Chambers also referenced a March 20 Roundup article about the investigation and the allegations. The article referred to Tedeschi’s salary increase, which came from an attachment to Chambers’ letter.
Chambers emphasized that he hadn’t made any allegations, only investigated the allegations made by the then-unrevealed source listed in the attachment to his letter.
The Roundup article did say, “the figures in the county attorney’s record were apparently provided by someone with detailed knowledge of the negotiations and the town budget,” and did not attribute the allegations to the county attorney’s office.
“As to the last paragraph of the release, our intent was to clarify the record,” Chambers said.
“It is interesting (that the Gazette) interprets the press release as criticizing the Roundup. I don’t think there is any criticism. It is just for clarification purposes.”