Star Valley Councilor Gary Coon faced a tough choice.
Newly elected to the council last year, Coon was assigned to the budget committee. As he studied the numbers, he started noticing some odd patterns.
Specifically, he scratched his head and tried to make sense of a chain of decisions stretching back over 20 months that ended up boosting the compensation of then-town manager Vito Tedeschi by nearly 40 percent.
But try as he might, Coon couldn’t find the repeated public council votes to justify those increases — which included an unusual sequence of decisions that converted the town manager into an independent contractor and then back to a town employee.
The documents showed that then-mayor Chuck Heron had approved each of those changes, often with a sign-off by the town attorney. The town council had voted properly on some of those increases, including two 3-percent cost-of-living raises. But the documents showed that Heron had signed off on several changes without specific council approval, and other approvals had been rubberstamped on the consent agenda.
What to do?
Coon didn’t want to violate the open meeting law by polling other council members privately. The law forbids a council meeting without a duly posted agenda, and bars a council majority from discussing how they’ll vote on an issue ahead of time. It also bars an elected council from developing a consensus privately, by a series of one-on-one conversations or even a forwarded e-mail. The vital law ensures that public decisions are made in public — which allows voters to hold council members accountable for their actions.
On the other hand, Coon didn’t want to just bring up his questions and suggestions at a council executive session, since he suspected potentially illegal activity and didn’t know for sure who might have been involved. The public meeting law does allow the council to privately discuss a few sensitive matters, like lawsuits and personnel matters. However, even those executive sessions must limit themselves to discussing topics listed on a posted agenda — and must make any actual decisions in a public session.
So after agonizing over the matter, Coon took his concerns to the county attorney’s office, which subsequently launched an investigation of possible open meeting law violations.
That had to be a tough decision — in a small town where everyone’s connected.
We don’t know what the county attorney’s investigation will conclude. Clearly, some major decisions on the town manager’s contract didn’t get the public discussion they deserved. Legitimate questions also center on the decision to convert the town manager into an independent contractor to help him reduce his taxes, even though he continued to supervise employees. Clearly, such significant changes in the town manager’s contract should have been discussed by the whole council.
Heron has since said that the council authorized him to negotiate with Tedeschi on his contract and “initiate” changes.
We will leave it to the county attorney’s office to sort out the legalities.
Certainly, Star Valley wouldn’t be the first council to violate the public meeting law. As it happens, the current Payson council is on what amounts to open meeting probation, as a result of actions of the previous council. The Attorney General’s Office concluded the Payson council broke the law by holding a lunch meeting at an out-of-town conference to discuss the performance of the town manager.
But however the county attorney’s investigation turns out, we want to commend Councilor Coon for his tenacious and principled effort to do his duty as he saw it. We understand how difficult was his decision and how unpleasant the potential consequences, in a small town where the council has long prided itself on short meetings with minimal discussion and few dissenting votes.
We don’t question that Mayor Heron was — and remains — devoted to the welfare of the town he helped create and still loves. We also remain admirers of Mr. Tedeschi, who helped invent the town’s government structure and left it with an ample reserve fund to weather a debilitating recession.
However, it’s time for the town to follow Coon’s lead —and scrupulously obey the law by conducting all their business in the open.
We hope the county attorney concludes its investigation quickly, so the town council does not become bogged down in rehashing the past.
But we also hope that this whole, worrisome mess will prompt the new council majority to change how it operates.
Fortunately, Councilor Coon has shown the way, with his detailed investigation of the town budget and his commitment to the public’s right to know what’s going on.