Open Government Group Objects to Closed Twin Falls Meetings

From the Twin Falls Times-News

Idahoans for Openness in Government filed a complaint against the city of Twin Falls Tuesday, claiming city officials have repeatedly violated the state’s open meeting law.

The complaint stems from the city’s use of closed subcommittees. The panels are made up of fewer than four City Council members, plus city staff and citizens. The groups make recommendations on who should fill open city positions and on city finances, for example.

The meetings were “purposely designed to evade the law,” wrote Betsy Russell, president of Idahoans for Openness in Government, in the complaint emailed to Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs.

“The Open Meeting Law applies to a subagency if it has ‘the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public agency regarding any matter.’ These City Council subcommittees clearly fit that definition,” Russell wrote in the complaint.

On Nov. 13, the council voted 4-2 to keep its 14 subcommittees closed after Councilwoman Rebecca Mills Sojka submitted a resolution to open the meetings.

Mayor Greg Lanting said during the meeting that complying with the Open Meeting Law would require the city to hire an additional staff member to take minutes for the 14 subcommittees. City Council members also worried about public discussions of sensitive economic development negotiations.

Russell, however, wrote in the complaint that one member of each subcommittee could be designated to take minutes.

“This would not require the hiring of a city employee,” she said. “Besides, there is no exemption in the law for those who believe compliance would be inconvenient.”

The closed meetings are not posted, and no minutes are kept.

City Attorney Fritz Wonderlich and Lanting told the Times-News that because the subcommittees are formed solely by the mayor, not the City Council, the meetings are not obligated to follow Idaho’s Open Meeting Law.

Lanting promised at the Nov. 13 meeting to not appoint more than two council members to each subcommittee. Any groups discussing contracts, economic development or appointing people to an open position — which are the majority of the groups — will remain closed, but the groups on zoning ordinance changes and infrastructure are now open.

“The council and mayor seem to think that by limiting the number of council members on each subcommittee to two — less than a quorum of the full City Council — it can somehow evade the Open Meeting Law. As you know, this is incorrect,” Russell wrote.

Loebs said he will wait to begin investigating the complaint until Dec. 1.

“I intend to follow up on it,” he said. “I’ll take it seriously.”

From the Twin Falls Times-News

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