Editorial Board, May 2008 to August 2008
- Bryna Larsen, publisher
- Brent Boyer, editor
- Mike Lawrence, city editor
- Tom Ross, reporter
- Eric Morris, community representative
- Paul Draper, community representative
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Steamboat Springs It seems innocent enough. A group of Steamboat Springs City Council members heads from Centennial Hall across Lincoln Avenue to Harwigs for a couple rounds of drinks and idle conversation after a long Tuesday night meeting. It's certainly not the first group of City Council members to participate in such social gatherings.
But no matter how innocent their intentions, City Council members have created a dangerous perception with their regular Harwigs get-togethers. The wise decision would be to put an end to the gatherings and, therefore, an end to any questions or appearance of impropriety.
City Council members say they've been gathering at Harwigs after council meetings since November. Council President Pro-tem Cari Hermacinski says the gatherings provide an opportunity for council members to maintain healthy personal relationships and work better as a team. Council veteran and President Loui Antonucci says the gatherings are an indication of the group's camaraderie and public business is never discussed.
At least one council member disagrees. Steve Ivancie, also a council veteran, says he stopped attending the gatherings after only two appearances because he thinks they are illegal and that public business was discussed.
We'd like to give City Council the benefit of the doubt and assume its members are well aware of Colorado Open Meetings Laws. To be fair, council members were confident enough in the legitimacy of their gatherings to encourage a Pilot & Today reporter to join them and use it as the subject of a story.
City attorney Tony Lettunich said he has briefed council members on the law and told them he thinks the meetings are legal.
Provided discussion doesn't trickle over to public business, he's probably right.
According to Colorado Open Meetings Laws, a meeting of a public body (such as City Council) is defined as "any kind of gathering convened to discuss public business, in person, by telephone, electronically or other means of communication." Specifically, an open meeting of a local public body is a gathering of a "quorum or three or more members, whichever is fewer, at which public business is discussed or formal action might be taken."
The law also states, "Social gatherings and chance meetings are exempt from open meetings regulations if discussion of public business is not the central purpose."
While the council members who participate in the Harwigs gatherings insist public business isn't discussed, it's hard to believe that during near-weekly meetings, with alcohol involved, some aspect of public business won't slip into the conversation. Council members work too hard on the public's business to compromise that work and the public's trust for a few rounds of post-meeting drinks.
It's similarly not hard to imagine a scenario in which a developer, restaurant owner, Realtor or anyone else with a stake in Steamboat Springs stops by Harwigs to join council members for a beverage. The appearance of impropriety would be overwhelming.
Bottom line: Save the team-building for retreats. If two council members feel the need to get to know one another on a more personal level, go out for coffee without the rest of the group. We want our City Council to be efficient but not at the risk of jeopardizing the public trust. Put an end to the Harwigs meetings.