Steamboat Springs Late Tuesday night at Harwigs Grill, six members of the Steamboat Springs City Council sat in the bar, unwinding after an unusually long six hours in the chambers at Centennial Hall. Over a glass of wine or a pint of beer, conversation ebbed and flowed about an array of subjects spanning idle gossip to national politics.
During the past four months, the gathering has become an after-meeting tradition for most of the seven-member body. They cite a team-building quality of the get-togethers that allows them to maintain congenial personal relationships no matter how fiery their political differences may be.
"If you can go out afterward and let that go away, you can work a lot better as a team," said Councilwoman Cari Hermacinski, noting council members have far more similarities than differences. "We're not Sunnis and Shiites."
But one council member says the ritual should come to an end.
"In my opinion, that's illegal," Councilman Steve Ivancie said of the gatherings. "I know how tempting it is to slip into policy discussions and how tempting it is to say, 'Oh, we're just having a glass of wine.' : I think this has got to stop."
Ivancie said he has joined the rest of the group only twice. He said he went the first time, shortly after the November election, to get to know the five new council members elected. He decided to stop going after a second time, claiming conversation drifted into the inappropriate realm of public business.
"I just see this as a problem, and, frankly, I'm disappointed they continue," Ivancie said. "I think it shows some inexperience but also some poor judgment, especially among those who should know better. : Specifically, a lawyer like Cari should know better."
In his own words, Loui Antonucci has been on the Steamboat Springs City Council "way too long." The council president first joined in 1989, serving one, four-year term before returning in 2001 for two more.
There have been tough times in those years, including the time he spent with the previous City Council in the months leading up to the election.
"I thought that was really, really hard, and, honestly, a lot of it was not really enjoyable," Antonucci said.
But in the months since November, Antonucci said he never has enjoyed serving on City Council more. He believes the gatherings at Harwigs are an indication of this council's camaraderie.
"You get out of there, and you need to relax," Antonucci said of council meetings where nervous energy builds in front of microphones and the public. "We have enough respect and camaraderie with each other that we can go get a drink and unwind."
As a member of the Steamboat Springs Planning Commission before getting elected to City Council, Hermacinski said relationships among commissioners suffered when the group stopped going out socially on a regular basis about six months before the election.
"When we stopped going out together, we really stopped communicating in a healthy way," Hermacinski said.
While former Councilman Paul Strong, who served on the body for eight years, does not agree that relations were strained on the previous council, he does believe in the benefits of social gatherings, something he said the previous council had less of toward the end of their tenure.
"I think the council was a little bit more divided than the current one is, but I don't think that played into any personal animosity," Strong said. "I think to develop friendships among council is really helpful because you don't let divisive issues divide the council."
Ivancie takes a different view.
"We weren't elected to be friends," he said. "We were elected to do the people's business."
The state's open meetings laws, or Sunshine Laws, are designed to make sure the people's business is carried out in public. Under the laws, most gatherings of three or more City Council members must be advertised and open to the public. There are exceptions, though, and open meetings laws do not apply to social gatherings and chance meetings if discussion of public business is not the central purpose.
"The concern is, and the admonition is, you can't discuss public business," City Attorney Tony Lettunich said.
Lettunich said he has discussed the weekly gathering at Harwigs with council members. He is comfortable that the gatherings are legal, and he leaves it to council to determine whether they're wise.
"That's for other people to comment on, but it's certainly legal," Lettunich said. "It's certainly not a violation."
Lettunich also points out that if it was council members' intention to do something improper, "the last place they would pick is Harwigs." Noting a council in the 1980s that gathered regularly at one member's private residence, Lettunich said he is much more comfortable with council members gathering in a public place where anyone can see and listen to them. In the case of the council members who gathered regularly in private, Lettunich said he recalls one council member filing a lawsuit against the others.
Ivancie said he believes the Harwigs gatherings are in blatant disregard of the Sunshine Laws, and he wonders what else the council members who attend might be ignoring. In council meetings, Ivancie said he sometimes gets the impression that things have been discussed before and that people are showing up with their minds already made up. He has no proof of such impropriety, but he said the social gatherings set the table for it.
"I just know that the temptation is there," Ivancie said. "That's why everything's done in public."
Antonucci and Hermacinski flatly deny that any improper discussions take place, and Hermacinski said discussion of public business is far from unavoidable.
"I have plenty of things that I could make conversation about in a bar over a beer," Hermacinski said. "I think the first reason it's not inevitable is because we're all ethical people. It's not difficult not to go there at all."
Antonucci said common topics are kids, schools, skiing and national politics.
"We certainly aren't making any decisions," Antonucci said. "I think that it's really healthy interaction."
After five or six hours in the council chambers, Strong said, public business was the last thing he wanted to discuss when he would go out with council members.
Even if the gatherings are entirely proper, Antonucci, Hermacinski and Lettunich noted that council members also have to be cognizant of public perception. To date, Hermacinski said, the group believes team-building qualities outweigh any negative public perception.
Strong agreed. He said he is a big supporter of the Sunshine Laws but that one unfortunate consequence of them is that they "tend to chill interactions among council."
Noting how much she enjoys the casual interaction with her fellow council members, Hermacinski said she hopes that doesn't happen.
"If it became a problem, we'd stop doing it," Hermacinski said. "But I think it would suck to have to stop."