While legal, closed-door meetings are not the best

© 2017-Lake Powell Chronicle

Making decisions in public is the right way

 A few weeks ago, shortly after the Trump administration bombed Syria, another country wanted to discuss Syria and issues related to the country at the United Nations.
It was a fairly typical request with an unusual ending. The meeting was requested behind closed doors, but the United States had others ideas. In charge for a month, the United States simply said no — not the meeting, but the request to meet in private.
It was a very unusual move by any government entity at any level. It reminded me of a time I covered a county in Texas and the county judge, basically the chair of the county board, simply refused to allow executive sessions. He was so adamant about meeting in public, he got in trouble sometimes because he held public meeting when state law allowed them to be private.
Then last week, I received the summary of the Page City Council meeting. At the meeting, the council approved a liquor license, renewed the city’s membership in the Rural Arizona Group Health Trust and proclaimed National Telecommunicator Week.
And they went into executive session three times. State law allows city councils to go into executive session for a variety of reasons. Behind closed doors and away from the public, they are allowed to discuss issues. But they cannot vote or make final decisions until they are in public.
Last week, the council went into executive session for the following reasons:
• To discuss a skydiving liability negotiations with the city attorney
• To discuss a contract with Republic Services for a fee increase
• To discuss with the city attorney and staff whether to hire a consultant to help with the closure of Navajo Generating Station.
A fourth executive session on the agenda to evaluate the city attorney was removed.
Those are likely all legitimate reasons to meet behind closed doors. They were related to personnel issues and contracts and negotiations.
My concern is not with using executive sessions, but rather what council did after they returned to the public portion of the meeting.
The purpose of the state law that requires councils to make decisions in public is so the public, the taxpayers, know what their council is doing.
When council came back from discussing the skydiving liability, they voted to have the city attorney prepare a release of liability agreement.
That one is pretty clear. As a resident, I don’t need every detail, but I have a pretty good idea what that means.
But after discussing a fee increase with Republic Services and an NGS closure consultant, the council votes were far more secretive — as the agenda reads, “Staff directed to proceed as discussed in executive session.”
While that may technically follow state law, from my view, it violates the spirit of the law. The reason city councils are required to make a “final vote” as the state law reads in public is because members of the public are entitled to have some idea of what is going on.
When the motion is to direct staff to proceed as discussed in executive session, it does two things in my view. No. 1, it shows council has no interest in giving the public any idea what they discussed. No. 2, it clearly shows a final decision, even without a final vote, was made behind closed doors.
Once again, it may be legal, but there are a lot of ways to obey the law without doing things properly.
Perhaps even more troubling is a council that makes half its decision behind closed doors. As a public body, the council should make every effort to meet and decide issues in public for all the world to know.
I understand the need for and the reason for executive sessions.
There are times they are absolutely necessary to save the city money and legal trouble. But those times should be few and far between, certainly not the norm.

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