Several members of the Tucson City Council this week violated the spirit – and possibly the letter – of the state’s Open Meetings Law.
The law was written to ensure that decisions by public bodies are made in public. That didn’t happen when several council members got together ahead of the meeting to reach consensus on controversial budget cuts.
It’s a practice that must not be repeated.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, Councilwoman Nina Trasoff said she had met with some colleagues “in twos or in threes” to discuss funding cuts to nonprofit groups and other jurisdictions.
Trasoff said that since four council members had not been together, there never was a quorum so it didn’t violate the state Open Meetings Law.
That’s defining the law too narrowly – and flies in the face of several opinions from the state Attorney General’s Office.
The law says this: “All meetings of any public body shall be public meetings and all persons so desiring shall be permitted to attend and listen to the deliberations and proceedings.”
But that’s just the beginning. Public bodies cannot circumvent the intent of the law by meeting in smaller groups ahead of time to reach consensus. That prohibition extends to the exchange of e-mails among members of a body in an attempt to reach an agreement.
A 1975 opinion by the state Attorney General’s Office said “all discussions, deliberations, considerations or consultations among a majority of the members of a governing body regarding matters which may foreseeably require final action or final decision of the governing body constitute ‘legal action’ and must be conducted in an open meeting.”
The same opinion says that discussions taking place among fewer than a majority of the members “to circumvent the purpose of the Open Meeting Act . . . would constitute a violation.”
That covers almost precisely what Trasoff did with Regina Romero, Karin Uhlich and Shirley Scott.
The discussion involved possible budget cuts so the city could avoid instituting a tax on residential rentals. That tax was the subject of lengthy and heated public hearings that drew hundreds of Tucsonans recently.
Council members should have continued that discussion in public so citizens could hear the entire messy process with all views expressed.
The talk should not have taken place in a series of private conversations and telephone calls, with the resulting consensus presented in public as a neatly packaged fait accompli.
City Council members must be educated not only on the Open Meetings Law, but also on the way it has been interpreted over the years. Public business must be conducted in public.