This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
While there are fewer than 12 miles between their city halls, Draper and Murray couldn't be further apart in their practice of closing city council meetings.
The Draper City Council closed a portion of nearly three of four of its regularly scheduled, special, emergency and work-session meetings to the public in 2016, while Murray closed only one out of 25 in the same time frame.
The two cities were at opposite ends of the spectrum of municipalities in Salt Lake County analyzed by The Salt Lake Tribune. Five of the 14 cities examined by the newspaper closed portions of a majority of their meetings, while the remaining nine kept a majority of their sessions open to the public.
"It varies just based on who the attorney is and who the mayor is," said Linda Petersen, who sits on the Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee. "It's a personality thing. Some [cities] are much more open than others, and you've got to think if one can be this open, why can't the others?"
To close a meeting, state "sunshine" laws require public bodies meet a range of requirements, including stating the specific legal reason for the closure and a roll-call vote that must pass by at least a two-thirds margin.
State law doesn't allow public officials to discuss just anything in closed meetings. For example, a discussion about "pending or reasonably imminent litigation" or "the character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of an individual" would be acceptable, while a discussion of tax increases or road projects would not. And any vote on public business would be illegal.
Michael Anderson, an attorney with the Utah law firm Parr Brown Gee & Loveless in its First Amendment and media practice group, said it's possible Draper closed its meetings legally but called its number of closures "curious."
"When the vast majority of meetings are being closed, that certainly would raise concerns that those meetings are not being closed pursuant to the very narrow exceptions for openness," he said. "The clear legislative policy embedded in the Open and Public Meetings Act is, 'Do as much in public as you can.' "
Draper Mayor Troy Walker said the city is growing, and he estimated litigation from developers and property purchases accounted for most of the council's closed meetings last year.
"The only reason we close [meetings] is when we have a reason to," he said. "I'm not going to back away from it. We do it when we have to do it and do what we have to do."
Amy Allen, a former Draper resident who has had run-ins with local officials over a gravel-mining expansion said she moved away in part because of dissatisfaction with the way the city was run. She said she was surprised to hear the council hadn't closed 100 percent of its meetings in 2016 and said there is a perception among residents that the administration has something to hide.
"I get this impression from other residents that [the city does] a lot of behind-door stuff," she said. "It angers me, you know? You wish for your local government to have transparency, and it doesn't."
Walker said suspicions that Draper's meetings are being closed for reasons other than those outlined in state law are unfounded, and he dismissed the idea that the data would show the city has something to hide.
"Everybody says the word 'transparency' all the time, and it's frustrating to me as an elected official because we have open meetings," he said. "Our meetings are streamed on the internet. They're live. You can get the minutes. They're detailed and typed up. But there are those times you've got to close [a meeting]."
West Jordan closed the second-most meetings in 2016, which the city's public information officer, Kim Wells, also attributed to growth.
"Cities that are built out would likely not have as many closed sessions to discuss property matters simply because there aren't as many," she said in an email. "Also, if there is an issue that involves pending or imminent litigation, that is also discussed in closed session."
West Jordan City spent much of the past three years embroiled in political turmoil, which could also account for some of its closed meetings. Among the havoc in 2016: Then-Councilman Jeff Haaga, who has since resigned, was accused of trying to claim legal immunity when charged in a hit-and-run accident, leading to a failed attempt by colleagues to censure him; city leaders were thwarted in their full-court press to approve a nearly $200 million tax incentive package to lure a Facebook data center; and the 5-year-old civil-rights lawsuit of a former police officer claiming malicious prosecution and retaliation edged nearer to trial. (That trial ended last week with the jury awarding plaintiff Aaron Jensen nearly $3 million in damages a verdict the city says it will appeal.)
Janet Lopez, Murray's City Council administrator, said her city makes a conscious effort to close as few meetings as possible.
"We just believe strongly in transparency and that our citizens should be able to see how we conduct businesses, so we try to do as much as we can in open meetings," she said. "We follow state code very closely."
Nicole Martin, Sandy's deputy mayor, said her city also makes a "deliberate" effort to keep meetings open. Last year, the council closed a portion of 16 percent of its meetings the second-fewest of the cities examined in The Tribune's analysis.
"We feel like cities can be more open than they are being, and we try and set a model for that," Martin said, adding: "It's frustrating to residents to have an inordinate amount of closed meetings and feel like the business of the people, so to speak, is not in fact including an audience of the people."
Though there are legitimate reasons to close portions of public meetings, it's not easy to determine whether a city closed a meeting within the scope of the law. About the only avenue available is to file a lawsuit and ask a judge to review the audio recordings or minutes of the meeting and release them if the meeting was improperly closed.
"In an ideal world, it would be good to have better access to those minutes," Petersen said. "Do I think we could get something like that through the Legislature? Not a chance. So the thing is, because of those circumstances, we're kind of at the mercy of city officials just hoping that they're doing the right thing and hoping that they're not abusing the law that allows them to go into closed session."
Murray • closes a portion of 4% of council meetings
Sandy • closes a portion of 16% of meetings
Midvale • closes a portion of 18%
Riverton • closes a portion of 21%
West Valley City • closes a portion of 36%
Draper • closes a portion of 73% of council meetings
West Jordan • closes a portion of 63% of meetings
Herriman • closes a portion of 61%
Bluffdale • closes a portion of 56%
Taylorsville • closes a portion of 56%
Methodology: The Salt Lake Tribune looked at all city council regular, special, emergency and work session meeting minutes for 14 cities in the Salt Lake Valley to collect data on how frequently each closed a portion of its meetings. Generally, work sessions and regular meetings were counted as a single meeting to avoid double counting closed discussions for the same topic.
The data did not include Alta, which is a township, and Millcreek, which was not yet a city in 2016.
Minutes … what minutes?
Cottonwood Heights could not be included in the analysis because it did not have minutes available from nearly a dozen meetings a clear violation of the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act. (The city does have audio recordings, which it offered to provide.) The city now is working to produce the missing minutes after it was unable to fulfill the newspaper's open-records request in a timely manner. It estimates the work will take four to eight weeks to complete.
How to object
Anyone can challenge a move to close a meeting of a city council or other public body if there is indication of an improper closure.
You may stand and ask to be recognized to make such an objection if the public body:
• Fails to state a specific exemption to the Open and Public Meetings Act in its motion to close.
• Fails to take a roll-call public vote on the motion.
• Fails to approve the motion by a required two-thirds majority.
You also may object if there is reason to believe a vote will be taken behind closed doors. Votes are not allowed in such sessions.