Prosecutor clears Rexburg leaders of violations

From the Idaho Statesman

REXBURG, Idaho — A special prosecutor has determined that a series of private conversations between Rexburg City Council members preceding a vote to name a new mayor did not violate the open meetings law.

But special prosecutor Penny Shaul also said the interactions by the city’s elected leaders last fall demonstrated a “fundamental lack of understanding of the (law’s) underlying purpose.”

Shaul issued her findings Wednesday from her five-month investigation into allegations that at least four of the city’s council members held private discussions before a vote to name a new mayor. On Nov. 4, the council elected fellow council member Richard Woodland to replace Shawn Larsen.

Shaul classified those discussions as “serial meetings,” defined as a series of gatherings by fewer than a quorum to discuss public issues in private. During those meetings, at least two members discussed who should nominate Woodland for mayor and who should second that motion. Two other members discussed the merits of naming Woodland to the post, according to Shaul’s report.

But the Idaho Open Meetings Law does not specifically prohibit serial meetings, and Shaul said no evidence exists to suggest a council member shared how they would vote.

“The conclusion that I came to … was that there were certain members of the council that violated the spirit of the Open Meeting Law,” said Shaul, a deputy prosecutor from Bonneville County appointed to the case.

The investigation was initiated after a complaint was filed by Maria Nate, of Rexburg. Despite the finding that no laws were broken, Nate said the report validates her original allegations and concern.

“I don’t see this as a loss,” she said. “It was always my intention to point out that the decision was made behind closed doors. Now that the light has been shone on them, they need to shape up.”

Rexburg City Attorney Stephen Zollinger cheered the report and its findings exonerating the council. But he said the city will heed recommendations to provide more education and training to the council on the law.

“Anytime we are made aware that we may lack understanding of a principle, we are concerned with that,” Zollinger said.

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From the Idaho Statesman

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