Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Mayor Chuck Tooley sent me a detailed response to my question about the propriety of discussing city administrator candidates in closed session:

"I called a special meeting of the City Council for Wednesday, July 30 at 6 PM at city council chambers. Channel 7 was there and so was Ed Kemmick. I called the meeting to order, discussed the wading pools issue which had been added at the last minute, then went on to the main item on the agenda which was the hiring of a new city administrator.

"Mark Kennedy made the motion to extend the offer to Kristoff Bauer, the motion was seconded, and Mark spoke first to his motion. After he was finished, each of us spoke on the motion. Some mentioned the other two candidates, some members only mentioned one or two candidates, but in the end all 10 spoke on the motion and explained why they were voting the way they were. Mike Larson was absent that night.

"So to answer your question, yes, there seemed to be a pretty good public discussion of why the council took the action it did to extend the offer to Kristoff.

"As a secondary issue, there had been some concern expressed earlier by one council member that he had heard things about one of the candidates that he was loath to bring up in a public setting but wanted to make sure his colleagues were aware of. Several other council members indicated they might also have some delicate information that might not be wisely bandied about in public. For that reason, I inquired of the city attorney if there was a way that we could address these concerns, get them out of the way, and then get on with a public discussion of the candidates. The city attorney said yes. He said that if, in the opinion of the policy board chair (in this case, the mayor) the public's right to know was not impeded by the individual's right to privacy, then the chair could call for an executive session to discuss it*.

"(* I can't remember the exact wording. I'm at home and the attorney's opinion is in the office, so if you'd like a copy, let me know.)

"So that's what I did. I called for a short executive session after the Monday July 28 meeting, then continued that session briefly at lunch on July 30 where we reported back from the references we had been assigned to contact on Monday night. As it turns out, there were no skeletons in any closets, only some imprudent words and phrases being applied to that person or this person which were more opinion than fact. Council members were pleased that we didn't have to drag specious laundry into the public eye to wash it when it was not really needed.

"Thus, we were able to publicly say why we were voting the way we were voting on Wednesday night and be confident in the integrity of our votes."

That's a good response, and it sounds like the City Council complied with the law. It doesn't answer the question of whether the law itself complies with the Montana Constitution, which allows closed meetings only when privacy interests clearly outweigh the public's right to know. Nor does it answer my earlier question about why The Billings Gazette editorially backed this selection process when it formally protested a school superintendent selection process that seems to have been remarkably similar.

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