Violating the public’s trust should bring consequences

Posted 4/5/22

At the start of the year, the City of Gillette was rocked by the release of hundreds of text messages between Gillette’s mayor and city administrator. In the texts, former Mayor Louise …

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Violating the public’s trust should bring consequences


At the start of the year, the City of Gillette was rocked by the release of hundreds of text messages between Gillette’s mayor and city administrator. In the texts, former Mayor Louise Carter-King belittled council members and other colleagues; the release of the messages prompted her to apologize and resign in January.

But beyond Carter-King’s insults and venting lurked something more alarming: repeated attempts to skirt Wyoming’s open meetings laws and conduct public business behind closed doors.

Media outlets are generally skeptical anytime a governing body goes into a closed door session, and these text messages validate that wariness. Although state law and Wyoming Supreme Court precedent are crystal clear about the presumption of openness, it’s obvious some elected officials don’t get it.

For example, when then-Gillette City Administrator Patrick Davidson asked to hold an executive session about “pool, utilities, budget etc.” in April 2020, Mayor Carter-King treated Wyoming’s open meetings law with nonchalance, responding, “might as well.” She added that the council “might bring other stuff up too” — even though state law specifically prohibits governing bodies from drifting into other topics during their executive sessions.

Then in June 2020, at a time city officials were under heavy fire from the public, the mayor and administrator strategized how the council could discuss the controversy in secret — even though the subject matter didn’t meet the criteria for an executive session.

It’s exactly the kind of stuff that reporters fear is happening when a county commissioner, councilor, college trustee or hospital board member moves to go behind closed doors.

To its credit, the Gillette City Council hired a pair of City of Cheyenne attorneys — Michael R. O’Donnell and Donna A. Murray — to review how the Gillette council had acted. Their blistering report was released last week, with O’Donnell and Murray finding in part a “clear and ongoing pattern of conducting regular city business in executive session.”

They gave plenty of examples of topics that were improperly discussed behind closed doors: a water project, softball fields and concessions, the hiring of a search firm to find a new city administrator, the financial impacts of decisions by the Campbell County Commission, rural health care grants, possible taxes for economic development, funding for the fire department “and on and on.”

Among other things, the nine-page report also faulted the council for effectively excluding the public from “very questionable” pre-meetings, “dinners” that preceded pre-meetings and special meetings. Then there were group texts and emails that effectively amounted to illegal meetings.

Murray and O’Donnell emphasized that Wyoming law demands meetings to be open as a rule.

“Proper notice and transparency are not just minor details which can be overlooked,” they wrote.

The attorneys offered six recommendations, including doing away with council dinners and inaccessible pre-meetings and “severely restrict[ing] use of executive sessions.” The Gillette City Council has already implemented nearly every recommendation, Murray and O’Donnell wrote, concluding that the city “appears to be in good hands.”

While it may be true that Gillette is on the right track, it’s hard to move on from this saga with a good feeling. The report’s authors said they were very careful to avoid placing blame on particular individuals or embarrassing them, as they wanted to focus on best practices for the future. But this approach, while perhaps the most helpful for the government officials who commissioned the report, also allows those who betrayed the public’s trust to avoid accountability.

O’Donnell and Murray note that any actions the council took in one of their many illegal executive sessions are, under state law, “null and void.” But it remains to be seen whether any of the council’s decisions will actually be voided. State law also lays out a $750 civil penalty for anyone who “knowingly or intentionally” violates Wyoming’s open meetings act, but that’s not even mentioned in the report; at this point, it seems unlikely that anyone will be penalized.

And that is the underlying problem: a lack of true consequences when public officials conduct the public’s business in secret.

Consider that Carter-King didn’t resign for orchestrating illegal meetings, but for sending inappropriate texts. That’s why the councilors who participated in those illegal meetings right alongside the mayor remain in office.

In defense of the City of Gillette’s officials, it’s likely they thought they were in compliance with state law, or at least could argue that they were. But that’s part of the problem as well: Until our public officials are more concerned about being punished for holding an illegal meeting than they are about some sensitive topic becoming public, we can expect more scandals.