Last week’s editorial celebrated the demise of House Bill 74, which if passed by the Utah Legislature and signed by the governor, would have allowed governmental entities to hold closed door meetings to discuss a confidential draft of an audit report.
We called HB 74 a serious affront to the state’s Open Meetings Act because it could have resulted in hush-hush deals to resolve inconvenient or embarrassing errors without citizens’ or the media’s knowledge before the audit’s final draft became public.
Now we have another concern to keep an eye on that presents a possible conflict over citizen participation in governmental meetings.
As reported on the front page of last Thursday’s edition, the Grantsville City Council may make changes next month to its rules and procedures regarding taking public comment at City Council meetings.
Driving that proposed change is fear over the possibility of lawsuits stemming from discussing land use issues during City Council meetings. Evidently, the complexity and challenges of land use issues caused by Grantsville’s residential and commercial growth, has Mayor Brent Marshall and the City Council worried that one or more citizens may say something at a City Council meeting that could result in a lawsuit against the city.
It is presumed such a lawsuit would be filed by a developer or landowner who takes umbrage with what a citizen or citizens say — or a response by the mayor or City Council — about a development during the public comment segment of a City Council meeting.
Such a fear is legitimate, especially if there are citizen comments presented at a City Council meeting about a development that are made without the developer or landowner present, nor during a formal public hearing about the development.
And matters get worse if the developer and/or landowner perceive the City Council was influenced by those citizen comments made outside of a public hearing, and made a decision that negatively affected a development.
Yet, while such a fear is legitimate, the mayor and City Council are urged to see that an overt attempt to control citizens’ right to speak during a City Council meeting begins a slide down a slippery slope that too is fraught with potential legal woes for City Hall.
Perhaps a solution is already at hand without the City Council trying to create one that could regrettably hurt City Hall’s good standing of giving citizens’ access to openly speak at council meetings. During last week’s City Council meeting, Councilman Neil Critchlow said the main duty of the council and mayor during public comments is to listen with no need to respond immediately. And Mayor Marshall said he and the City Council could learn how to interact better with the public during meetings.
As a newspaper that fiercely protects the right of free speech, we see any attempt by the City Council to tamp down on citizen comments about land use issues as an exercise in futility. The better solution perhaps rests with how the mayor and City Council responds to those comments.