Green River Star -

Our View: Questioning closed doors

 


Let’s get one thing out of the way, executive sessions are vital to government operations.

An executive session is a legal method of keeping discussion secret, allowing elected officials to meet behind closed doors in very specific circumstances. While on the surface it would seem that any governing body utilizing one is acting secretively and outside of the public’s interest, we’ll admit there are instances the public shouldn’t have complete transparency as it can directly have an adverse effect on the public’s business.

For example, when a governing body recesses to discuss a land transaction, doing so in private protects a governing body from falling victim to a price hike designed to maximize the seller’s profits. After all, if someone were to find out through the media or attendance to a meeting that a governing body was interested in a particular piece of land, who wouldn’t want to use that information to their advantage.

Another example of this revolves around proposed litigation. Supposing a governing body is open about discussion between the body and its legal representation involving a lawsuit they’re currently involved in, the opposing parties in that litigation could use that public discussion against the governing body.

While executive sessions are indeed useful for a governing body, there are times where calling a session seems somewhat questionable. While we’re dedicated to the pursuit of open government, it’s also extremely difficult for us to call an executive session unnecessary due to their inherently secretive nature. One of these instances occurred Tuesday involving the Sweetwater County Commissioners and the Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County Board of Trustees. Commissioner Wally Johnson called for an executive session between the two groups and their legal representation after the board presented its proposal for its ambulatory surgery center. Johnson said the session would be used to discuss personnel issues and contracts, but it raises the question of why the commissioners would need to be party to a personnel discussion involving MHSC.

According to state statute, a body can discuss personnel issues if it needs “to consider the appointment, employment, right to practice or dismissal of a public officer, professional person or employee, or to hear complaints or charges brought against an employee, professional person or officer, unless the employee, professional person or officer requests a public hearing. The governing body may exclude from any public or private hearing during the examination of a witness, any or all other witnesses in the matter being investigated. Following the hearing or executive session, the governing body may deliberate on its decision in executive sessions.” It can also meet in an executive session “to consider accepting or tendering offers concerning wages, salaries, benefits and terms of employment during all negotiations.” An executive session must stick to the topics a governing body calls the executive session for. A body can’t, for example, call a session to discuss a matter of national security, then discuss who should get a road construction contract after they’re finished talking about national security.

While it’s true the county owns the hospital, it doesn’t make sense why the commissioners would need to be involved in a personnel and contract discussion with the hospital board. That board is appointed to deal with issues specifically related to MHSC. The board can host executive sessions to discuss personnel and employment negotiations that the county should not be involved in because the county gave responsibility over the hospital to the MHSC board.

The session lasted nearly two hours and when the regular meeting was called back to order, a vote was taken to table discussion about the hospital’s proposed surgery center to the commissioners’ April 21 meeting to allow additional public comment while no mention was made of the issues discussed during the executive session or if any decisions were made regarding personnel.

As we weren’t a party to that closed door session, we don’t know what was discussed and we can’t call the executive session illegal with absolute certainty, so we won’t. It’s entirely possible the session was conducted within the parameters of the law, especially considering the commissioners could, possibly, have brought complaints to the board about an employee. But, even then, what would a complaint have to do with the proposed surgery center? Wouldn’t it have been more prudent to discuss personnel and contract matters after concluding discussion about the surgery center?

We honestly believe officials act with the best intentions of their constituents, regardless of if they’re elected or appointed. However, in the rare instances like this, it isn’t hard to question what really was being discussed behind closed doors.

 

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