Driggs City Council Discussion About “Improving Public Communication”
March 5, 2015 :
In an effort to foster better communication with the public, Driggs City Councilwoman August Christensen had put this issue on the March 3rd city agenda and planned to lead a discussion. Towards the end of the evening however, just as it was time for the council to take up “Agenda Item #12: How to improve communication and perception of openness within community” Mayor Hyrum Johnson announced he was dropping this off the agenda. (See, Agenda Item on Openness Almost Ignored. Teton Valley News, March 5, 2015.)
Here are our notes about the ensuing discussion.
To this announcement Councilwoman August Christensen exclaimed: “What?! Why? You can’t do that.” Mayor Johnson explained that he pulled it from the agenda to be picked up again in two weeks. August asked why the delay was needed. Johnson said he could not disclose the reason at this time.
After pressing this issue a while longer, August then asked the council to go into executive session because she “did not understand why this is happening.” Johnson replied that there was no legal basis for executive session* and as such, the council simply could not go into executive session.
*Editor’s note: Johnson later told the Teton Valley News that he pulled the agenda item due to receiving a March 3rd letter from several Driggs business owners asking for Reconsideration of the recent Huntsman Springs approvals and revisions to the city’s public policies. As a pending legal controversy, this letter qualified as a valid basis for executive session.
Johnson: “This is a conversation that we need to have and right now we can’t have that in a vacuum.” August replied that she did not understand his reasoning and that she “wants to start this dialogue with the public.” Johnson warned that August would be “very frustrated” if she tried to talk now.
“Can I please just be given a reason why we can’t discuss communicating openness?”
Johnson then said August could “try to communicate in general terms that do not refer any person or development proposal.” He further cautioned her that she “will be on a very short leash” however.
After a moment of collecting her notes, August began: “The city has been getting lots of bad press in the papers. The public does not see the city as transparent. Let’s talk about ways that we can be more open with community members in the future.”
Johnson said he is working on ways to improve working with the public such as a regular email blasts and he always responds inquiries on the city’s website.
August: “But how can we the city deal with bigger things? How can we actively care about how we are perceived in our community?” She suggests the city conduct formal 3rd party reviews of past experiences to learn from past actions to improve on the future.
Councilman Ralph Mossman suggested that more detailed explanations be included in the city’s public notices because “the average person can’t understand what the notices say.” He agreed that a 3rd party review “could be a good idea.” August then listed several options the city could explore:
1. One option is to hire a private attorney to do the review as a consultant.
2. Teton County’s attorney Kathy Spitzer is another option.
3. The University of Idaho Law School could do a review, but August worried that the student work might not be taken seriously by the city.
4. Her final recommended option was to bring in the Idaho Attorney General’s office – “which is free and neutral. It would be the state essentially doing the review as a neutral and professional party.”
Ralph said that when the city recently looked at staff salaries, the city paid for a third party consultation which was helpful. August then asked the City staff for their thoughts.
Driggs Public Works Director Jared Gunderson felt that the city did not need to hire people to help them learn from the past. “Let’s learn from ourselves and move on.”
Economic Development Director Doug Self said the key to good communication “is having accessible information and full information available online” – which he believes the city already does. He furthered that it’s important “to get out an talk to people in downtown” which he said he does on a weekly basis and encouraged the council to do the same.
Councilman Wade Kaufmann asked about doing a Town Hall meeting like the county does. Johnson said that a Town Hall is impossible because Driggs must always have a publicly noticed agenda.
City Planner Ashley Koehler said that she puts together an annual report and is trying to grow the city’s Facebook page. She also intends to renew regular communication with the local newspaper.
What specific options is the City Council is willing to explore?
Ralph and Wade both said they would not support paying money for a 3rd party review, and Wade did not want “to re-analyze every little decision” that the city made. August said that in light of this feedback, she thinks that the Attorney General’s office would be a good option for the city: “We could be fully able to trust what they are saying.”
Wade: “When you say ‘Attorney General,’ that’s serious stuff, isn’t it? I mean holy crap – that’s like the I.R.S.”
City Attorney Stephen Zollinger had some thoughts to share at this point: “I can tell you right now that the A.G.’s office will not do a review. They will answer to specific legal questions posed by elected officials. They will not review past actions, until they are so old that it’s moot.”
August said hat she feels like the public’s perception of the city is getting worse: “We don’t want to be in this progressive downward spiral of negativity anymore.”
Councilman Greer Jones did not think the city needed an outside person “to come in an tell us what we’ve done wrong – the city is capable of doing that review themselves.”
Stephen Zollinger cautioned: “If you are talking about a specific incident, the A.G. or the County attorney really shouldn’t review it.” He also thinks that it would be unethical for the County Attorney to do any kind of review because she would have a conflict of interest. “Your only option is to find someone or some attorney to volunteer their time or else hire them.”
August reported that she had already talked to the attorneys at Idaho Counties Risk Management Program (ICRMP) as well as the Association of Idaho cities. She said they can’t do the review, but they did both advise her that the City of Driggs really should do a 3rd party review in this instance.
Wade asks if City Council could a review themselves in executive session. August: “Well, I wanted to have an executive session, but you won’t let me.”
Doug Self then asked about hiring Jerry Mason to do the review since he was the attorney previously recommended by VARD (we recommended the city conduct a formal 3rd party review at the February 3, 2015 hearing for the Huntsman Springs Resort). August said that Jerry was the attorney at the Association of Idaho Cities; she already talked to him and he could not do the review because of a conflict of interest.
Wade did not want any review to be done by anyone that has any connection to any special groups in the county. “And not just VARD – anyone.”
Jerod Gunderson then asks if Jerry Mason could at least come to Driggs and do a government transparency training, which he has done in the past.
Ralph then asked about the Downtown Driggs business owners letter the Council just received that day. He held he letter up and asked, “When are we going to talk about this?”
Said Mayor Johnson: “We are not discussing that letter tonight. Later.”
So what happens next?
August told the council she will put this issue back on the upcoming March 17th City Council agenda with some specific options for engaging in a 3rd party review of the city’s recent actions and decisions.
Then, on a related topic, Johnson reported that the Huntsman family is” interested in divesting themselves of Celebrate America” starting with this summer and they are wondering what portion of the event the city is willing to take on. He said these discussions have begun between Huntsman and himself in private already and will be on a future agenda.