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Open Meeting Law Investigation Sparks Council Debate

Sedona, AZ — By Tommy Acosta…

All right you political chess buffs out there, here’s another one for you to ponder and masticate.

Last night, Nov. 25, at the Sedona City Council meeting, members discussed allegations filed with the Attorney General’s office that four council members violated the Open Meeting Law shortly before the council voted to put lights on 89A.

Needless to say, sparks flew at the meeting, with council members targeted by the investigation proclaiming righteous innocence and flatly stating they would take legal action against those who requested the investigation, collectively or as private individuals.

The city attorney cautioned the aggrieved council members to wait until the investigation into the allegations is completed by the AG office, an investigation that has been going on more than a month, before filing charges of false complaint against those who called for the investigation.

Before we get into the juicy parts of this latest twist in the saga of the 76 lights for 89A, let’s turn the clock back in time and review what has happened so far.

The Prize

I know this is going to sound slightly cynical but as a veteran of Bronx New York politics I have seen and reported things that would raise hair on an eggshell. I learned early on if you want to get to the meat of a story, follow the money.

In my opinion, it’s all about the $1.7 million or so dollars someone is going to get paid to put those lights up. And if the low sodium lights are picked then it’s also about who gets paid to paint and maintain them. It’s also about the businesses along the 89A corridor that would profit by those lights.

Consider: the 89A Safety Committee, after months of study, did not cite the lights as the best safety measure for 89A. Plain and simple, it’s about the money – because it was there and because of benefit to concerned parties.

The Dilemma

There is an ongoing investigation going on whether four council members violated the Open Meeting Law, and, whether the council exceeded the scope of their agenda by making a motion to put in 76 lights on 89A when the discussion and action was supposed to be on the safety committee’s recommendations alone, recommendations that did not include putting in the string of lights.

The aggrieved-council members might not legally be able to vote on any action because they were named in the investigation, which means there can be no quorum. 

Further, no one knows yet the scope of the investigation or where the AG office stands. The public, perhaps not even members of the council, know the exact wording of the call for an investigation.

There is a swirl of unanswered questions wrapped around the issue. How far did the city attorney go in investigating whether the four council members in question formed a quorum without notice or not? Did he just make phone calls? Did he check with Reds (where the council members allegedly met) to see if on the specified date any of the members were present; paid with credit cards? Did he ask for e-mail records between the members that occurred on the date of the alleged violation, or cell phone records to see if there were any contact between those members during, prior or after the alleged meeting? Will the AG’s office ask for such information as part of its own investigation, assuming they feel the city attorney’s investigation was incomplete and not thorough enough?

Also, did the city attorney check to see how much time the public had to read the posted-quorum notice indicating more than three council members could be traveling to Flagstaff for a presentation on dark sky lighting? Was there collusion between any of the counselors who traveled to Flagstaff and the organizers of the event to ensure the lights go up on 89A?

And had there been four members in the van going to Flagstaff, how could the public have attended the ride? Is this a consideration? Were any phone calls made to the absent council member from the van?

Then there is the question whether proper procedure was followed by the city attorney in his investigation. Should he have notified the mayor and council of the investigation and asked for direction before proceeding on his own as per the City Code.

Did the city attorney follow the city’s Code of Conduct, which stipulates public requests for investigations need to be brought to the attention of the mayor?

Will legal action against those who asked for the investigation spark even more lawsuits against a city hurting for money?

Questions, questions, questions…

And of course we can ask about the intent of those who called for the investigation. Was it a malicious attack to get even with the council members who voted for the lights? Was it a community fight gone too far? Did the opponents of the lights step over the line and it’s time they paid for their recklessness? Could the aggrieved prove character assasination with evil intent in court against individuals known for community activism?

We can also ask if the council members targeted by the investigation are using the allegation of a false complaint as a means to legally silence their opposition?

Looking Into the Crystal Ball

It’s prediction time!

OK. We know the AG’s office asked for an audio/visual record of the meeting where the 76 lights were approved to determine if the vote was within the agenda. Having witnessed the vote, I was totally impressed by the finesse by which it was accomplished. It would have made councils back in the Bronx blush with envy. We may find the AG’s office agreeing the agenda was breeched.

Should this happen, the pro-dark sky faction will score a small victory but the pro-light faction will simply bring it up again and vote them down with impunity.

Such victory is mainly psychological and will be short-lived. We can expect the aggrieved council members to proceed full-speed-ahead with their quest to punish the opposition and set the stage for the downfall of a NSA designation for Sedona and, of course, the creation of an alternate route through Red Rock Crossing.

The resolve of those who filed the complaint will be tested. For them it’s either step on the brakes or step on the gas. Those who want them silenced will not ease the pressure. Even if there is no chance of winning the suit, the effect on the opposition will be chilling.

The Meeting

You could cut the tension with a knife. There were few smiles at the council table, save for the mayor, who actually seemed to be enjoying himself.

The aggrieved council members peppered the discussion with threats to pursue charges against the complaintants no matter what, with some stating they were personally affronted.

The former mayor, now a council member, said not only were the reputations of the aggrieved council members tarnished, but the reputation of Sedona was also on the line.

“I think it is a disgrace,” she said.

The city attorney kept bringing the issue back to what the AG’s office does before the council deliberates on punitive measures.

He did indicate the difficulty in prosecuting a case against the filers of the initial complaint and how slander with evil intent would have to be proven.

One council member not part of the aggrieved noted the chilling effect the council would have on citizens voicing complaints if those who do so end up being sued.

“Do we cross the boundary of a council using its power against citizens voicing a concern,” he said. “This issue is far from resolved.”

An aggrieved council member countered “Anyone can say anything,” he said. “Is what they are doing vindictive? My opinion is that it is. They made this up…This is absolute crap.”

Another of the four said “I’m going to personally handle this by myself with my own council.”

The question whether the aggrieved could legally vote on a matter they themselves are personally involved in, was not addressed.

At the end of the discussion no action was taken or direction given to staff.

Conclusion

We’re talking a Class “A” political brawl here, a fight that’s not going to end pretty and a political war of attrition that’s going to go all the way to the next election. The wild card is the public itself and the kind of pressure it will bear on one council faction or the other. Here’s another thing to consider. ADOT does not have the Federal Funds check for the project in its hand yet.

What happens if a lawsuit is filed against the lights? Regardless, the fight continues.

And as for us members of the Fourth Estate? It’s going to be a feeding frenzy of good-reading emotionally-packed news.

 

2 Comments

  1. Sarah McLean says:

    Well written, clearly presented Tommy.

  2. You pose extremely interesting questions. Hopefully if answers aren’t forthcoming locally the State Attorney General will provide them.

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