Green River Star -

By David Martin
Editor 

The lunch party of five

 


The image of five guys, sitting at a table having lunch together isn’t something that would raise a lot of eyebrows.

If those five are elected officials serving on the same board, as is the case with the Sweetwater County Commissioners, the situation can get a bit more murky. The group has had lunches together during days they’re meeting for official county business for the past several years. With the exception of Randy Wendling’s election in 2014, the board’s makeup has been the same since 2010, when Commissioners Wally Johnson, Reid West and John Kolb were elected and Commissioner Don Van Matre was chosen to fill an unexpired term.

The lunches would seem to go against the intent the Wyoming Open Meetings Act, which states a majority gathering of any group of people elected to the same board or commission constitutes a quorum of that group. However, according to Jim Angell, executive director of the Wyoming Press Association, those lunch gatherings are not an issue so long as the commissioners don’t discuss official business or make decisions while at lunch. If they do decide to discuss county business during lunch, they would have to find a location to allow the public to watch them and invite residents to the lunch.

Angell said a similar situation came up in Cheyenne with the Cheyenne City Council years ago. A council member owned a bar and other members would frequent the business after meetings and chat together. Residents complained about the discussions the group allegedly had regarding taxes, but nothing happened legally as there wasn’t proof they were discussing city business while hanging out at the bar. Angell said the Council members became much more careful in their discussion topics afterward.

Secretive meetings are an issue that isn’t new to Sweetwater County. Secretive discussions and quorums were a major point of discussion during the 2010 election and alleged out-of-meeting decisions culminated in a lawsuit filed against the county due to allegations of Van Matre’s appointment being done secretively. During a special meeting Dec. 2010, former commissioner Paula Wonnacott resigned and Van Matre was unanimously approved as her replacement.

Kolb criticized the commissioners’ action, claiming “cloak and dagger actions” would end with the new commissioners’ placement on the board. The current set of commissioners, excluding Wendling, were also warned by a deputy county attorney during an early 2011 meeting that a quorum of three commissioners outside of their official meetings violates Wyoming law.

The issue resulted from Kolb, West and Johnson attending a public Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County board meeting without knowledge of the other commissioners’ plans to show up.

Johnson said he and the other commissioners don’t talk about business while at lunch, often chatting informally and taking a break from the meeting they’re conducting.

“We get along well together,” Johnson said. “We don’t get together at any other time (outside of the meetings).”

It isn’t unusual for people who work together to go out to lunch during a work day and other councils and county commission boards have met informally for meals throughout Wyoming. Sometimes those groups meet at a restaurant at specific time and day while other times elected officials meet after their meetings conclude. In Rock Springs, members of the city council frequent the Bittercreek Brewery after their meetings, but also ensure they don’t form a quorum after the meeting. Tuesday night, Council members David Tate, Rose Mosbey and Glennise Wendorf were at the restaurant and were one person shy of a Council quorum.

Johnson said the commissioners realize they’re on a thin line when it comes to having lunch together and has shut down conversation topics when they start to veer towards issues related to county business.

“We will not make a decision in those meetings as long as I’m the chairman,” Johnson said. “I would stake my reputation on it.”

 

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