Basalt councilman protests executive sessions with boycott
A Basalt Town Councilman is refusing to attend the board’s executive sessions because he thinks more business should be done in public.
Councilman Mark Kittle walked out of the council chambers Tuesday night after the rest of the board voted to go behind closed doors. When questioned outside the chambers, Kittle said he has skipped nearly every closed meeting since citizens confronted the board about executive sessions in August.
“I think a portion of the town seems to think we’re doing things behind closed doors more than we should be,” Kittle said when contacted Wednesday.
The council consistently holds executive sessions at its regular meetings on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month. Closed sessions have been held five times in April and May primarily for town manager candidate interviews and contract negotiations with Ryan Mahoney, who verbally agreed to the job Wednesday.
Records show the council also adjourned behind closed doors once in January, twice in February and once in March — in roughly half the meetings. The topics identified on their agendas ranged on land-use matters to potential litigation with former manager Mike Scanlon.
Kittle said he isn’t necessarily saying the meetings are being illegally held, but he isn’t convinced they are needed in private.
“I don’t know that we have that many items that need to be secret,” he said. “I think sometimes the attorney goes overboard.”
For example, the council held a handful of sessions to discuss the contract negotiations with Mahoney. A housing allowance was among the items for discussion. That could have been held in a public session rather than private, Kittle said.
Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said it is unusual for an elected official in local government to do a blanket boycott of executive sessions.
He said he occasionally gets contacted from officials who object to or have questions about the propriety of specific meetings.
He said Kittle’s actions should spur Basalt to do a self-analysis.
“I think that’s interesting,” Roberts said of Kittle’s boycott. “What I hope it leads to is an (examination) of how they’re conducting their executive sessions.”
Kittle acknowledged that some executive sessions are legitimate, such as getting advice from the town attorney on lawsuits or issues that could lead to litigation.
When asked how he justifies missing those discussions, Kittle said he tells Mayor Jacque Whitsitt his position on topics such as negotiations. For example, Tuesday he told Whitsitt he supported giving Mahoney a $2,000-per-month housing allowance.
Whitsitt said she respects Kittle’s position, though she feels the council only holds executive sessions when necessary and justified. Private sessions are clearly necessary when interviewing manager candidates, she noted.
“If you show your cards on some of this stuff, you can hurt peoples’ careers,” she said.
In cases where the town is pursuing a purchase of real estate, it must discuss its strategy in private or risk losing its leverage. That would result in paying higher prices and wasting taxpayers’ money, she said.
Whitsitt said the board cannot hold closed sessions simply because members are “squeamish” about a particular topic. She said she feels the town government has improved its disclosure of topics it discusses — providing as much information as it can in advance without jeopardizing the discussions.
Basalt resident Ted Guy filed a lawsuit against the town last year alleging that four executive sessions were improperly held between April and August 2016. The lawsuit said the topics were vaguely disclosed and violated a law that requires a government to provide as much information as possible.
Eagle County District Judge Russell Granger ruled the council wasn’t unlawfully setting policy or improperly expanding discussions. Granger determined that the town could have been more specific on the topic of buying a specific property, which he labeled a “hyper-technical ruling.”
Guy achieved one of his goals. Since the January ruling, the town has offered more specific information on the topics heard in closed session.
Smith said the town is “trying to be more transparent” by providing more information on the topics of executive sessions and determining if there is information that can be shared. He said he respects Kittle’s position but also feels the town is only holding executive sesssions when necessary.
“I would never advise the council go into executive session if I didn’t feel it was permitted under the open meetings law,” Smith said.
Whitsitt said she “wished” Kittle would participate in the executive sessions because he has a “salt of the earth” perspective that aids deliberations.
“I respect Mark tremendously,” she said. “As an elected official, if he doesn’t want to participate he doesn’t have to.”
Kittle is in the third year of a four-year term.
“That’s my position,” he said. “I don’t know that I can be convinced to participate.”