Payson Council members Thursday grappled with the fine points of the state’s open meeting law – hoping to prevent any more screw ups before they can get off probation.
Town Attorney Tim Wright went over a new policy on when town staff will post agendas when a council majority plans to attend the same event.
“We want to eliminate public notices and agendas that don’t offer any public meeting law protection,” said Wright. “The real agendas are getting lost in the clutter of the notices.”
The issue involves what to do when a council majority plans to show up at events like meetings of the Citizen’s Advisory Council or public events at which dignitaries or candidates appear. The state’s public meeting law requires the town to post an agenda and notify the public any time a council majority gathers and discusses town business. It does not affect social gatherings at which a council majority does not discuss town business.
“If you go to a CAC meeting where the Mayor is discussing bringing ASU to town, that’s very different from a Chamber of Commerce meeting where the mayor makes some perfunctory remarks,” said Wright.
In recent months, the town has been sending out notices almost haphazardly any time four council members think they might attend the same event. The new policy would send out notices only when a meeting will likely involve town business – especially if a council member is speaking.
The rules will not change when it comes to posting agendas and meeting notices for all regular and special council sessions and hearings focused on town business.
The details of the open meeting law have gotten extra attention in Payson, ever since the state Attorney General concluded that the previous council violated the law by discussing personnel changes over a private lunch at a League of Cities and Towns convention.
After that meeting, the council ended up forcing out the town’s personnel director and pressing then Town Manager Fred Carpenter to take a buyout to retire early. The town’s former finance manager, whose son was the laid-off personnel manager, later filed a complaint with the attorney general. The town council agreed to what amounts to open meeting law probation to resolve the compliant. On the current council, only Ed Blair, Su Connell and John Wilson participated in the illegal meeting.
Ironically, Carpenter – who was the central topic of that meeting – now serves on the council.
On Thursday, Carpenter pressed for clarification of the rules.
“At a recent CAC meeting, one council member had to leave,” to avoid a possible violation – since the meeting centered on the prospects of bringing ASU to town.
Carpenter asked if the town would help defend a council member against alleged violations of the open meeting law, although he said each council member is responsible for following the law.
“Most of the time a violation is something that people stumble into,” said Wright. “It’s been two years since our last encounter with the attorney general -- and they treat you differently depending on how long it’s been since your last encounter.”
Councilor Blair asked, “who is responsible for calling the clerk’s office?” if it looks like a council majority will end up at the same event. “Should we tell (the town clerk) and let her poll the other council members?”
“Poll is a bad word,” interjected Wright hastily. “But Sylvia can check with the other members to see if they’re coming.”
The goal of the open meeting law is to ensure that elected officials make their decisions in public, instead of arranging things behind closed doors. Therefore, the law prevents council members from “polling” one another by phone or email to figure out how they’re going to vote on an upcoming issue. For instance, a council member would violate the law if he sent an e-mail to fellow council members urging a particular vote and communicating how a majority of the council plans to vote.
“What if we’re attending a meeting – but won’t speak?” said Blair.
“Then we wouldn’t issue a notice or an agenda – but feel free to let Sylvia know,” said Wright
“But if we go to this hypothetical meeting,” said Carpenter, “and we start asking questions and expressing opinions – are we on dangerous ground” if a majority of the council is in the audience?
“I would say go, listen, talk to constituents – but be careful about speaking” if there are at least three other council members in the audience, said Wright.