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12:02 PM Sat, Jan. 19th

Probe alleges open meeting violation

KINGMAN - The Arizona Attorney General's office recently sent a letter to the city to inform officials that a complaint of an open meeting law violation was received and an investigation launched.

The complaint stems from an Aug. 25 Kingman Area Chamber of Commerce mixer held at Nucor Steel. Three Council members, Vice Mayor Robin Gordon, Carole Young and Richard Anderson attended the event. Both Gordon and Young spoke and answered questions regarding the bar and restaurant tax, which at the time had not been adopted.

During the mixer, Councilwoman Erin Cochran showed up. Four Council members in one place constitutes a majority, and by discussing the bar and restaurant tax - even if it was just Young and Gordon doing the talking - the four members unknowingly stepped into the realm of meeting-law violation.

Herberta Schroeder, who attended the event and at the time was a member of the Chamber's Board of Directors, saw this occur and ended up filing a complaint with the AG's office on behalf of herself.

City Attorney Carl Cooper sent a response to the AG's office - after getting direction from Council during a recent executive session - that explains what has been done to ensure this situation doesn't reoccur.

In it, Cooper writes that he provided a memorandum to Council members regarding open meeting law statutes and how they apply. Council also received "You as a Public Official," a League of Cities and Towns publication provides insight into open meeting laws.

"The Kingman City Council is aware of the open meeting law statutes and will endeavor to always be in compliance," Cooper wrote in the letter.

The worst-case scenarios for Council members who were at the mixer would be $500 personal fines and even removal from office, Cooper said. However, that harsh of a penalty is generally reserved for more serious violations. Cooper doesn't expect Council to be punished that severely.

The best-case scenario would be if the AG's office decides no violation occurred, Cooper said.

When it comes to open meeting laws, the AG's office is not in the business of punishment and is more focused on education, Cooper said.

Although Cooper hasn't dealt with an open meeting law violation complaint before, he expects the case to be resolved within a few weeks.

"That's purely a guess," he said.

Open meeting laws are in place to keep deliberative bodies from getting together and making decisions without notifying the public, and by all accounts that's not what happened at Nucor Steel.

All four of the Council members have said they made an unintentional mistake. Cochran showed up late, and none of the other members saw her come in.

"It was an honest mistake," Cochran said after the complaint was filed.

Since the complaint was filed, Council has been incredibly careful when it comes to open meeting law. However, the fear of violation has become a sort of running joke - eliciting laughs and a "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" type of behavior any time open meeting law is brought up.

At every single Council meeting, 5-10 minutes are dedicated to "announcements." Usually, everyone sitting on the dais gets a chance to speak, including the city clerks, attorney and manager. At the Sept. 6 meeting, it was Cooper's turn to speak during the announcement segment. He explained to Council that he and the city clerks are not allowed to speak during announcements. Only Council members and the City Manager are permitted to speak during the period.

Cooper ended his announcement by saying that he violated meeting laws to give legal advice to Council explaining how not to violate meeting laws.

Audience and Council members all shared a laugh, and the meeting ended shortly thereafter.