Chris Higgins asks about $57k check at 8.27 meeting

Council member Chris Higgins (far left) asks further questions of contract town attorney Justin Pierce during his presentation to the town on Aug. 27 on why the council paid more than $57,000 to the lawyers representing the Rim Country Education Alliance for legal fees associated with a lawsuit the town lost.

No mystery surrounds the $57,000 check Payson paid to the law firm of Snell & Wilmer, insisted contract town attorney Justin Pierce in an Aug. 27 presentation to the Payson Town Council.

The payment wound up in a list of other checks on the council’s consent agenda. The town paid it to cover attorney’s fees that stemmed from the council’s failed attempt to remove three Rim Country Educational Alliance board members.

The judge ordered the payment, and the town paid. Case closed, said Pierce.

Pierce said the town followed its normal procedures for paying the check, which didn’t include listing the payment on the agenda, providing details on the check in the consent agenda, a public discussion of the terms of the payment, or details on the months-long delay between the judge’s order and issuance of the check.

Pierce explained the chain of events that led up to the payment to the law firm representing the RCEA.

The RCEA was established by Payson, Star Valley and the MHA Foundation to oversee negotiations and construction of a university campus in Payson. The MHA Foundation funded the RCEA. The contract gave the Payson and Star Valley councils the power to each appoint three RCEA board members, from a list of candidates provided by the MHA Foundation.

The judge ruled Payson had broken its contract with the RCEA and violated the board members’ due process rights. Therefore, the judge ordered the town to pay the legal fees of the RCEA — or go forward with a trial the judge said the town had little chance of winning.

Pierce said the town followed normal procedures when it included the check with a batch of other payments totaling $1 million on the consent agenda.

The public might not have learned about the payment except Councilor Chris Higgins asked to pull the check from the Aug. 13 consent agenda for discussion.

Higgins’ request prompted Vice Mayor Janell Sterner to wonder if it was “normal” for neither the council nor the public to have an explanation for a check like this.

Pierce explained the court order required the town to issue the check, so “this is why it was paid as it was, with the matter being placed on the consent agenda with other checks paid.”

The agenda on Aug. 13 did not list the checks individually. The town has since added a link that lists the amounts of each check along with check numbers and the payee.

Higgins still had questions and concerns.

“I just wanted to understand for myself that there isn’t a lawsuit against the town,” he said.

He said one of Mayor Tom Morrissey’s campaign ads accused opponent Jennifer Smith of suing the town for $87 million.

“I would really like to know as a council member if there is an $87 million lawsuit filed against the town,” he asked.

Pierce explained the town had only received notice of a potential $87 million suit that “did not name the town.” No lawsuit has been filed in that matter involving statements made by two council members about the MHA Foundation and its board members.

Pierce said the $57,000 in legal fees was a completely separate issue. That lawsuit was dropped after the council reinstated the RCEA board members.

Higgins also raised other issues.

He questioned whether it was good town policy to make the $57,000 payment out of the contingency fund without alerting the public — or even the council.

“We say we are being transparent to the public,” said Higgins, so the council should have “publicly stated” what was going on with the settlement.

Councilor Jim Ferris wondered whether the council could have successfully removed the three RCEA board members if they had gone about it differently. “Would they not have come back with a TRO (temporary restraining order) against the town?”

Pierce said, “This is hard to say,” but that “the town could be in a coin flip on the matter of one thing or the other with due process.”

Pierce said the judge felt the “merits of the case” would fall in favor of the RCEA if the issue went to trial. Had the town pursued the lawsuit, it could have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so the $57,000 payment represented “the best result for the town.”

Councilor Steve Smith said he didn’t like the way “this check ... was signed and sent out. This was a bad decision made by some of the members of this council.”

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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(3) comments

Mike White

Thank you, MHA, for suing the Payson tax payers for $57000 because you didn't get your way with the 3 appointed board members. I guess you showed us, continuing your terrible goodwill with the local community.

Randy Hust

I don’t understand the function of the RCEA. What the HECK is it for?

Mary Kastner

"The RCEA was established by Payson, Star Valley and the MHA Foundation" ???

The RCEA was established by the Towns of Payson and Star Valley. MHA was not part of the Intergovernmental Agreement to form the Separate Legal Entity.

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