Our Opinion: You just can't do that

Monday, April 10, 2006

A Cherokee City Council member has stated that there was no illegal closed meeting to decide on the termination of Diane Cargin, the deputy city clerk/treasurer who was terminated last month.

In fact, there was no meeting at all at which this decision was made. That is the problem.

The deputy city clerk/treasurer is a position appointed by the city council and language in the city code indicates that the city council is responsible for the termination.

Did the city council make this decision? Well, sort of, but not really.

The city administrator informally polled the council members about the termination after giving his reasons for wanting to do so, reasons that have never officially been made public. Four of the five council members have said they supported the termination.

The city officials were careful not to have more than two council members present during discussion of the termination. Since a quorum (a majority) of the council was not present at any time during a discussion of the matter, there was no meeting about the matter.

The problem is, that since there was no meeting on the matter, the city council has not officially made any decision on the matter.

The council can go into closed session to discuss a personnel matter but the affected employee should be present and has to request that the meeting be in closed session before it is closed. The council has to go back into open session before a vote is taken on anything.

The attempt to circumvent the open meetings law through secretive communications is not new, nor is it exclusive to the Cherokee City Council.

As noted in a Chronicle staff commentary printed in January of 2002, "It becomes obvious when a matter has been discussed by elected officials outside of an open meeting, contrary to the intent of the open meetings law. This is not a rare occurrence… Public officials likely assume they are obeying the open meetings law when discussing a matter through phone relays or through third parties as long as a quorum of a public body is not simultaneously discussing the matter. This violates the spirit if not the letter of the law."

City officials have basically admitted that -- yes, that is what has happened.

In this case, the city officials appear to have gone beyond a violation of just the spirit of the law. They have definitely gone beyond what is acceptable.