Basalt mayor violates open meetings law while raising concerns over Willits review
December 16, 2015
Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law last week by sending an email to other council members that criticized the town staff for its handling of a land-use review application, according to Town Manager Mike Scanlon.
Whitsitt emailed Scanlon and Town Planner Susan Philp with complaints that the staff hadn't thoroughly vetted issues such as traffic and sales tax revenue sharing for the council's review of the Willits Town Center proposal by the council Dec. 8. She copied five of six council members on the email.
Scanlon said the staff recognized the email was "wrong" because conversations, including emails, between the majority of council members must be conducted in public. He contacted Town Attorney Tom Smith, who confirmed the email was a violation and informed Whitsitt that she shouldn't undertake that type of communication, according to Scanlon. Councilman Rick Stevens also contacted Smith with a concern about Whitsitt's actions, according to Scanlon.
The attorney for Mariner Real Estate Management was notified about Whitsitt's email, Scanlon said. Mariner is the developer of Willits Town Center and applicant in the land-use matter Whitsitt addressed.
Scanlon said the town recognized an infraction occurred, informed everybody involved, and the mayor was notified that type of communication shouldn't occur again.
"It's just bad form, and it's not smart," Scanlon said.
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An email from a council member to town staff is legal, Scanlon said. But even if Whitsitt's email had gone to each council member individually rather than as a group, it would have violated the open meetings law, he said.
Whitsitt was on the short end of a 4-2 vote Dec. 8 on Mariner's request to add 91,000 square feet of residential and commercial space to Willits. It's a two-step approval process. The second hearing will be held Jan. 12.
Whitsitt said her email wasn't an attempt to conduct business outside the view of the public. "It was not, but I can clearly see it was public-type information and should have been shared with the public," she said.
She said she welcomes public scrutiny of her email, which is about government transparency and process. Whitsitt asked the town staff to post her email on the town's website along with Mariner's application and review information. The email was added late Monday.
Whitsitt said she wishes she had raised the issues addressed in the email at the Dec. 8 council hearing, but she didn't think of them during the lengthy discussion of Mariner's request. It was important to get the issues on the table prior to the second meeting on Mariner's proposal Jan. 12, she said.
"It's information that should have been shared in the public meeting," Whitsitt said. "It was pretty much sticking to process."
Whitsitt initially didn't send the email to Stevens. She said it was inadvertent, and she sent a text with the content of the email to him later Wednesday. Whitsitt and Stevens are often at odds with one another on town issues.
Whitsitt started her email by noting that Eagle County wasn't offered the chance to provide referral comments about the Willits Town Center proposal. Whitsitt said when the town opposed Ace Lane's project in El Jebel earlier this year, town staff lobbied Eagle County to let Basalt have its say. Now, Basalt must give Eagle County its say, she said.
Whitsitt also questioned if Basalt staff performed a critical analysis on the pros and cons of the Willits Town Center application, particularly on the issues of traffic generation and sales tax revenue sharing.
"The greater community needs to have confidence that their elected officials and staff are vetting this and all land-use issues neutrally and thoroughly," Whitsitt wrote.
The email is available in its entirety on the town website at http://co-basalt.civicplus.com/DocumentCenter/View/1575.
She concluded by saying, "I am disappointed in this process and the lack of scrutiny on the part of our council and staff in reviewing the complex issues associated with a project that is going to have a tremendous traffic and tax impact on our Community far into the future."
Scanlon said there hasn't been a request by Mariner for Whitsitt to recuse herself because of the email. Whitsitt said she will continue to participate in the review because she wasn't advocating a position or stating how she would vote.
Smith didn't direct Whitsitt to recuse herself, according to both Scanlon and Whitsitt.