Closed-door meetings to continue for Twin Falls council

From the Twin Falls Times-News

The Twin Falls City Council will not open closed-door work group meetings that provide recommendations on city finances, contracts and key hiring positions.

The council voted 4-2 to keep the work groups — consisting of city staff, council members and citizens — closed to the public and not required to keep minutes during Monday’s meeting.

Instead of opening the sub-committees, Mayor Greg Lanting promised to appoint no more than two council members to future work groups, but he held fast that the majority of panels should be closed, citing that keeping minutes at all the work groups would require hiring another staff member.

Lanting then pledged to remove council members from work groups with three council members on the city’s 14 work groups that had been already formed.

The city had no official list of how many groups are making recommendations on critical decisions to the council and mayor.until the Times-News submitted a public records request for a list in late October.

According to records, Lanting created and appointed 14 sub-committees since April 14.

Councilwoman Rebecca Mills Sojka proposed opening the meetings after attending a Times-News-sponsored forum where Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Betsy Russell, president of Idahoans for Openness in Government and The Spokesman-Review reporter, spoke with public officials, the media and citizens about Idaho Open Meeting Law and Idaho Public Records Law.

“I would prefer we as a body embrace the intent of the Open Meeting Law,” Mills Sojka said. “I think that is a vital conversation.”

The council work groups are legally allowed to be closed to the public since they are appointed by the mayor instead of the entire City Council, but Idaho Open Meeting Law encourages cities to keep them open.

“The requirement that the Open Meeting Law be complied with whenever a quorum of a governing body meets to deliberate or to make a decision should not be evaded (emphasis added) by holding smaller meetings with less than a quorum present or by having a go-between contact each of the governing body members to ascertain his/her sentiment,” writes Attorney General Lawrence Wasden In the Idaho Open Meeting Law Manual.

The work groups are formed to submit recommendations on a variety of city business that range from who should replace empty council, committee or board positions, city finances and multi-million dollar contracts.

“There’s really no reason to have a closed meetings if it’s not an executive session,” Mills Sojka said. “If people being interviewed for a position can’t be interviewed in a group, then I don’t think I want them.”

Two or three council members sit on almost every subcommittee. Any more would form a quorum, thus forcing the city to follow the Idaho Open Meeting Law.

“I will follow the wishes of the council. If I don’t get my way, I won’t go about complaining about it,” Lanting said before the council voted.

Council members Chris Talkington and Mills Sojka were the only ones to vote in favor of the resolution. Councilman Jim Munn was absent from Monday’s meeting.

The rest of the council said they felt opening the groups and requiring minutes be kept was too extreme.

“I think we’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” Councilman Don Hall said. “I believe we have been following the law in good faith.”

Councilman Shawn Barigar said keeping the work groups closed helped keep city government efficient.

“In my mind, it’s easier to follow the letter of the law than the spirit of the law, because the spirit gets moved around a lot,” Barigar said.

From the Twin Falls Times-News

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