Editorial: In its most important decision, town council fails on transparency

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In the past few months of attending Ridgway Town Council meetings, we’ve had the opportunity to hear robust public discussion on topics ranging from water rate structures to the ethical reasons for banning plastic bags from stores.

We’ve heard 30-minute discussions centered on debate over what a “small” versus large plastic bag constitutes, or what thickness of reusable plastic bags should be allowed and other minutia.

This council is no stranger to public discussion and those who regularly attend meetings can attest, each councilor has his or her own opinions and isn’t afraid to make their views known, even on the most finite details.

Town councilors made perhaps the most important decision of their tenure on Nov. 8 when they decided to offer the job of town administrator to Preston Neill.

And yet, we have no idea what led them to this decision or what their reasoning was.

That’s because they made this decision in private, in a meeting that wasn’t noticed as one the public could attend, in violation of state open meetings laws.

Having an alleged public meeting in a small office behind a closed door, after issuing a public notice stating it would be a closed-door session, is anything but public.

But that’s what the Town Council did when it interviewed finalists for town manager two weeks ago. And then, after visiting with a stakeholder group that also interviewed the finalists, they met in what they called a public meeting that also wasn’t properly noticed, and decided to hire Neill.

Here’s what we know about what happened:

- The town posted a public notice that the council would hold an executive session beginning at 8 a.m. on Nov. 8 “for the purpose of determining position relative to matters that may be subject to negotiations; developing strategy for negotiations and to conduct Town

Manager candidate interviews.”

- Councilors and Gov Plus Consultant Mark Garcia, hired to help facilitate the search and hiring process, met at that time and discovered they didn’t have a way to record the executive session, as required by law. So they decided not to vote to go into executive session. “We didn’t have a recorder so we just started our meeting as normal,” Garcia said. (Please note, a “normal” meeting for the council, in public, is also required to be recorded.)

- The councilors met in what Garcia called a “public session” behind closed doors in Town Manager Jen

Coates’ office, a small space with room for only the councilors and the finalist being interviewed.

- After the interviews, the council met together again with Garcia, decided to offer Neill the job and directed Garcia to negotiate a contract with him. There was no formal vote but a decision was made by consensus.

Minutes of this meeting were taken, according to Town Clerk Pam Kraft, but they’re not available because the council hasn’t adopted them yet.

- Mayor John Clark acknowledges the day didn’t go as planned, but has said, “I don’t think we did anything wrong, per se.”

Garcia told the Plaindealer that they “erred on the side of caution” by not voting to go into executive session, after discovering they didn’t have a way to record the meeting.

However, because the meeting was initially noticed as a closed-door session, this did nothing but deprive the public of a meeting they should have been able to attend. Never mind how potential attendees would have fit into the office that had room for the candidate, the council and Garcia, as it wasn’t being held in the usual large meeting room.

Let’s just call this what it was — a de facto executive session. The door was shut, the public didn’t know they could attend because of the way the meeting was noticed, and there was no room for them, anyway. It was literally a closed-door meeting.

Even if councilors intended for it to be public, the council normally records its public sessions, and the town clerk or a designee is present to assure those recordings happen and to take minutes of the meetings. This didn’t happen. Garcia said he kept some limited handwritten notes, but that’s not how minutes are usually recorded.

State law requires public bodies to continue to record their public meetings if they started doing so on or after Aug. 8, 2001. State law also requires minutes to be recorded of meetings of public bodies.

Having no recording of the alleged public meeting where the interviews occurred adds insult to injury. While the thinking may have been centered on the fact that executive sessions must be recorded, according to state law, the lack of recording used in public meetings also is not OK.

But we’re concerned not just with how the meetings were conducted. A decision that should have been made in public was made in private. The decision to offer Neill the job is an official action that deserves discussion and a vote in open session, not a rushed “consensus” in a non-noticed, supposedly public meeting held after the interviews.

If the council wasn’t prepared to properly record its meeting to interview the candidates, as it normally does in executive sessions and public meetings, someone should have figured out a way to do so or rescheduled the meeting. And no matter how the interviews were conducted, the council should have made its decision to offer the job to Neill in a properly noticed public meeting, where constituents had enough notice to attend if they wanted to do so.

When the Plaindealer raised concerns about this, the town decided to have a special meeting Monday night. This was scheduled after town officials discussed whether they had violated open meetings laws with attorney Bo Nerlin, after the Plaindealer pressed them on what happened, but the town didn’t want to spend money to have Nerlin look into the matter further, Garcia said. Instead, they scheduled another meeting.

“In the spirit of making it right we’re going to have a special meeting on Monday night to clarify that we’ve selected Preston,” Garcia told the Plaindealer. While we appreciate the gesture, the council did not take the opportunity to shed light on their decision. They simply ratified the contract they had negotiated with Neill. Coates told the councilors they had nothing to apologize for and they acted within their purview. We disagree.

Let us be clear – our problem is not with the finalist who was offered the job and we have no qualms with his qualifications. The problem lies with the erroneous process the council undertook in the final rush to fill the job. We hope the mistakes the council made in the process of making this decision do not cloud Neill’s arrival. It’s not his fault the council erred in its process.

But in this case, the means matter as much as the ends. Public business needs to be conducted in public, and mistakes were made. We encourage the councilors to examine their understanding of Sunshine laws and practice transparency, no matter how pressed for time they are or what technical challenges they encounter. After all, we deserve to know at least as much from them on their decision about the town’s next top administrator as we do of their opinions of plastic bags.

This staff editorial represents the views of the Plaindealer.