Glendale City Council members maneuvered around the state’ Open Meeting Law last week when they privately met with National Hockey League executives and potential buyers of the Phoenix Coyotes who outlined their desire to use and manage Jobing.com Arena. The largely new council campaigned on bringing sunshine to City Hall, but there has been little public discussion about the Coyotes since the new leaders took office five months ago. The dearth of public discussion comes despite a council-set deadline in three weeks to have the matter settled. It’s unclear when residents will hear details and get to offer opinions on an arena deal that is expected to cost the city millions of dollars a year. The council members met privately with the hockey executives on May 28. They convened in groups of one, two and three during a series of back-to-back meetings. The limited attendance of elected officials during the serial briefings was important. If four of the seven council members had attended the same meeting, the Open Meeting Law would have required the meeting to be conducted in public. Instead, the hockey executives repeated their presentation four times throughout the morning. All four meetings were private. Councilwoman Norma Alvarez, residents and First Amendment experts questioned whether the serial meetings were legal and appropriate, but Mayor Jerry Weiers, other council members and the city attorney said the council’s actions were in accordance with the Open Meeting Law. There’s reason to suspect that the council purposefully circumvented the law, depriving the public of its right to listen to deliberations, said David Bodney, a First Amendment attorney who represents The Arizona Republic. “If meetings were scheduled to discuss essentially the same thing or things sequentially to avoid the requirements of the Open Meeting Law, then there would be a violation of statute,” Bodney said. Glendale interim City Attorney Nick DiPiazza said there was no intent to circumvent the law, because the private get-togethers were not actual meetings. “There was no meeting conducted. If there were a meeting, there would have to be an agenda, there would have to be a quorum. And there was no meeting,” he said. DiPiazza believes that the gatherings scheduled four days in advance were merely occasions for polite introductions, he said. “When you speak of a meeting, it sounds like something official. It sounds like something is agendized. It sounds like something which is intended for the conduct of business, and I don’t think that’s what was intended here,” DiPiazza said. Weiers went to the first meeting at 9 a.m. Interim City Manager Dick Bowers was next at 10. Vice Mayor Yvonne Knaack and Councilman Ian Hugh followed at 11. Alvarez was invited, but didn’t attend. Councilmen Sam Chavira, Manny Martinez and Gary Sherwood went at noon. During the four meetings, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly formally introduced the top principals of Renaissance Sports & Entertainment, the investment group that NHL executives selected to purchase the Coyotes, according to hockey executives and city officials. The NHL executives also asked city officials to negotiate a deal with Renaissance’s executives that would keep the Coyotes at the arena and could pay Renaissance millions of dollars a year using taxpayer funds to manage the city-owned facility, according to the hockey executives and city officials. Weiers declined to discuss the details shortly after the first private meeting when he was approached by several news crews that staked out the lobby of City Hall. “I don’t have anything for you guys right now,” the mayor told reporters. “The council is going to be briefed in separate meetings going on today and once we have all that together, we’ll give you a statement. But right now, we really don’t have anything to tell you,” he said. When asked whether the format of the serial meetings was intended to sidestep the law, Weiers responded, “No, it doesn’t sidestep anything. The reason they’re doing that is because we can’t have a quorum. I want all the council to know what’s going on, but to stay with state law, we can’t have a quorum.” Later that week, Weiers said Renaissance’s principals outlined their financial requirements in broad terms during the private meeting he attended. Asking Renaissance’s principals to outline their requirements for the entire council in public would have put them at a competitive disadvantage to other facility management firms that are bidding to operate the arena, he said. Weiers, Hugh and Sherwood said they were comfortable with the serial private meetings because they lacked a quorum of council members. The other council members who attended the meetings did not return calls seeking comment on the matter. “You know what? There is no sidestepping the Open Meeting Law,” Hugh said. “You either abide by it or you break the law. There’s not a sidestep.” Hugh is mindful of the law and he presumes that other members of the council are equally attentive, he said. Alvarez criticized the council majority for participating in the carefully formatted meetings that kept the discussions out of the public domain. “I promised that I was going to be transparent and I mean that,” Alvarez told the Republic. “I’m not going to break the Open Meeting Law.” Just hours after the private meetings concluded, all seven council members and the city manager attended a regularly scheduled council meeting, which was open to the public, broadcast live on the city’s cable-TV outlet, recorded and posted on the city’s website. The hockey executives didn’t attend the public meeting. And none of the council members discussed the day’s developments concerning the Coyotes and the arena. Council members are permitted to raise any topic. In fact, just before ending every public meeting, Weiers invites each council member by name to speak about any subject he or she cares to address. Sherwood used the open-microphone session that night to explain his vote against the proposed city budget; Knaack said she wasn’t totally pleased with the budget either. Martinez commended a person for his historic preservation work and a company for its volunteer work; Hugh seconded Martinez’s remarks. Weiers spoke eloquently about Memorial Day. Alvarez and Chavira said nothing. Glendale resident and government watcher Kenneth Sturgis noted their silence on the arena deal. “In my opinion, a bigger downfall of this whole process is the lack of transparency in these types of separate meetings and the circumvention of the Open Meeting Law,” Sturgis said during the public meeting.
Closed Glendale council-NHL meetings raise concern
Arizona Republic | Jun 12