Thursday, January 3, 2008

Supes' Appeal Meeting Starts in Executive Session

Posted By on Thu, Jan 3, 2008 at 12:52 PM

I checked the Pima County Web site to see if the agenda for the Pima County Board of Supervisors' Jan. 8 meeting had been posted. Sure enough, the agenda is posted, but one concern is that the discussion regarding the supes possible endorsement of the appeal filed by the Pima County Attorney's Office on Dec. 21 will begin in executive session.

If the supes decide to go with an appeal, Judge Michael Miller's ruling on Dec. 18 to give the Pima County Democratic Party the 2006 general and primary election database files could drag on for another year and possibly longer.

It isn't unusual for the beginning of the supervisors' meetings to include legal items discussed in executive session and then announce a decision made on the agenda item in public.

In this case, however, shouldn't it be handled differently?

The Pima County Dems have been asking the county to uphold Arizona open-records laws since Dec. 2006. If the records are released, Miller's ruling will have national consequences in other election-integrity cases across the country.

A public entity often uses executive session to discuss matters with its attorney--so, yes, I imagine the supes will sit around talking with Christopher Straub, the attorney leading the appeal who works for the Pima County Attorney's Office Civil Division. But when reporters see executive session on an agenda, even if it follows the legal parameters, it always makes them wince. In the end, how do we know the government using executive session is following the rules? We're not there.

Executive sessions are permissible when a public entity wants to have a lawful, private discussion about items it does not want the public to know about--items they are not necessarily required to make public. They do need to let the public know enough about what the session is about and what the business item they will discuss. In this area, the county agenda always gives good detail, even providing legal case numbers.

Once the executive session is done, the supes will need to take action in the regular open meeting. It says on the agenda posted yesterday that the supes expect the executive session to take no more than 10 minutes and that action will follow in the public meeting. A final vote, however, does not always make it into the public meeting. If the vote revolves around a litigation matter, like this, the public entity does not have to make the voting record public. If the supes take that route and vote to move forward with the appeal, how would we know which supervisor voted for or against the appeal? Minutes are taken during executive session, but are not public record--unless it can be proven that the agency violated the Open Meetings Act.

I understand the county has a right to hold the this "legal" discussion in executive session, but because this is regarding the lawsuit filed by the Pima County Democrats against the Pima County Board of Supervisors regarding open records and election integrity issues, the supervisors should discuss this in its entirety in public.

Transparency issues have been the focus since the Dems brought this case before the county and its Election Division. Transparency issues will continue to be debated if the county holds this discussion in executive session, even if they have a right to do so, and even if they vote against the appeal.