Monthly meetings in Pinal County can be dry affairs full of contracts, intergovernmental agreements and zoning changes. But a wrinkle in the way the county Board of Supervisors does business is seen by some legal experts as a way of skirting the public’s right to know what their government is doing, a violation of the state statute known as the Open Meetings Law.
In East Valley cities, specific cases in which councils meet in private with their legal counsels are outlined and advertised on meeting notices.
In Pinal County, officials post a statement on agendas that allows the board to meet on any item in private sessions, without giving notice to the public beforehand.
The statement says “the board may go into executive session for purposes of obtaining legal advice from the county’s attorney(s) on any of the above agenda items pursuant to (Arizona statute.)”
The county’s attorneys defend the practice, saying that the “catch all” statement is rarely implemented and that the board outlines specific items that it knows in advance will be part of a legal session.
Arizona statute states that certain personnel matters, reviews, pending litigation and contract negotiations allow a board to discuss issues in closed sessions before making a public decision.
However, attorney Dan Barr from Perkins Coie Brown and Bain said the statute is clear that Pinal County needs to be more exact in the issues it will discuss behind closed doors.
“It needs to be more specific … I’m looking at what the statute says,” he said. “That’s the whole purpose of the Open Meeting Law; you allow enough notice so that the public can know about the topic.”
In fact, state statute says an agenda “shall provide more than just a recital of the statutory provisions authorizing the executive session.”
Chris Roll, Pinal County’s chief civil deputy attorney, said the Arizona Attorney General’s Office handbook provides the opinion that a county can reserve the right to go into executive session if legal advice is needed and is unanticipated.
The handbook, completed in 2001, says a government board can include the statement that appears on Pinal County agendas.
Pima County makes no such statement on its agenda, but Maricopa County uses the same language as Pinal.
However, Chandler, Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek all summarize executive session items and make no such claim that any item can be discussed if the council decides it needs legal advice.
Fredda Bisman, town attorney for Queen Creek, said the city doesn’t make a blanket statement but didn’t condemn the practice of a blanket statement in Pinal County. She said she does legal work with Pinal County.
“If the listing says that you can go into executive session to get legal advice … than it’s appropriate to get legal advice,” she said.
Tom Chauncey II, with Gust Rosenfeld P.L.C., was more skeptical of Pinal County’s blanket statement.
“The result could be circumventing the Open Meeting Law … that is the effect of what they are doing,” he said. “Unless they have a public purpose or reason for not disclosing it, they should probably change it.”