Open doors reaffirmed public trust
June 9, 2008 · Updated 2:54 PM
"Some suggestions for prudent, lawsuit-free land use decision-making: * City councils should be loathe to fiddle with the recommendations of the planning staff, presumed to be skilled professionals. No reconfiguring projects, adding or subtracting lots or what have you, when subdivisions come up for approval;* The best way to keep politics out of controversial, project-specific decisions is to leave them to a hearing examiner; * A council should not try to make broad policy changes through its decisions on specific projects. And when hearing an appeal, rely on the facts and the law - not on public passions.We are able to relay these observations to readers - from among many offered in a council training session this week - thanks to a responsive Mayor Dwight Sutton and and city Administrator Lynn Nordby.Wednesday in this column, we took strong issue with the administration's plans to hold a two hour training session on land-use law, litigation and liability, behind closed doors in an executive session. We maintained then, and still do, that such a session would have violated the state's Open Public Meetings Act. Later that morning, council members Norm Wooldridge and Christine Nasser and chair Merrill Robison expressed misgivings over the session, and announced their intention to skip the meeting or simply walk out if it was not open to the public. Councilman Michael Pollock already had weighed in with concerns of his own; we have no idea where others stood.And this was not just the press making noise to stir something up. At city hall Wednesday, we crossed paths with a local land use professional busy at the planning counter. If the meeting remained closed to the public, he said, he intended to go anyway just to be thrown out - on principle.Shortly after 1 p.m., as we were hand-delivering a formal objection to the closed-door session to the mayor's office, Nordby announced that the program would be modified slightly - presumably to tone down its nebulous legal advice aspects - and the doors would be opened to the public. And so, in came the citizens and the press, in fair numbers. Was it worth the fuss?The city's attorneys say the seminar as envisioned would have been appropriate for an executive session; ours say it wasn't. And therein lies the problematic nature of the closed-door meeting - the only people who really know if it's appropriate are those inside. And they're obligated not to talk about it.An executive session, though, is more than what transpires around the table. It represents a bond of trust between the citizenry and their elected officials. In creating a law that allows public agencies to meet behind closed doors for a few very specific purposes, the public is investing its faith that such sessions won't be abused. It's not a privilege to be taken lightly, and sometimes we all need to be reminded as much.Wednesday, the majority of the council, and eventually the administration itself, opted to affirm that bond of trust.The downside was that in forcing the doors of the training session open, we had to actually go to it. And coupled with the lengthy council meeting that followed, that made for about seven straight hours in those little Commons chairs, a challenge for even the hardiest of bottoms.But as noted above, the session proved both dynamic and provocative, as a number of citizens and city staff in attendance agreed. And they were able to attend, because Sutton, Nordby and the city council showed the wisdom and grace to keep the doors open. For that, we thank them all."