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Lobbying session with Gov. Cox and Wasatch County Council violated open meeting law

Wasatch County Heber City North Fields
Ben Lasseter
/
KPCW
Heber City Mayor Heidi Franco arranged a meeting between Heber City and Wasatch County officials and Gov. Cox to lobby Cox regarding UDOT's plans for US 40.

Last week, a meeting between Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Wasatch County officials apparently violated Utah's Open and Public Meetings Act.

After Gov. Cox spoke to the Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce last Monday, he met for 15 minutes with local elected officials including state Rep. Mike Kohler and four Wasatch County councilors.

Heber Mayor Heidi Franco told KPCW she had arranged the meeting ahead of time with Cox’s office and invited officials to lobby the governor to stop a bypass through the North Fields. The Utah Department of Transportation is considering rerouting US 40 in the Heber Valley to reduce downtown Heber’s traffic congestion.

Franco said she gave Cox a council resolution opposing moving US 40 to the North Fields along with two citizen petitions signed by more than 1,000 residents opposed to the idea. Franco said the goal of the meeting was to communicate the extent of the opposition and lobby to have UDOT find another solution.

Though brief, the meeting appears to have violated Utah’s open meeting law because four county council members constitutes a quorum, which is the number of members legally required to meet in an official capacity.

Open meeting laws require public bodies to provide advance notice when they meet, as well as to keep written and recorded minutes of meetings.

The meeting with Cox was not publicly noticed or recorded.

Franco told KPCW that some county councilors worried ahead of time about bringing a quorum to the meeting, but she told them the meeting did not violate state open meeting law because the information presented to Cox had previously been presented in public, no decisions were made and the meeting was informal.

Richard Piatt is deputy chief of staff and communications director for Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes. He said the presence of a quorum is what determines whether the law was violated.

“It does sound like this was a violation of the Open Meetings Act because of the quorum,” Piatt said. “However, the remedy would be fairly simple. And it would be for the county to disclose what happened at the meeting at one of their future meetings, and or in the future, not to have a quorum present at the meetings like this. The goal of the law is ultimately compliance.”

Cox’s office confirmed the meeting details. A spokesman in his office said the Governor did not receive a guest list or information ahead of time about what the group wanted to discuss.

Heber City Council member Scott Phillips was out of town when the meeting occurred, and when he heard about it later he was not pleased. He called it a backroom meeting excluding some community views.

“I would have loved to go to the meeting and presented the other side in a public forum on the record,” Phillips said. “But that was not possible. I was not invited. I'm sad that this happened, that the governor basically got cornered into this meeting situation and that UDOT isn't able to just do their process and come forward with conclusions at the end and we make a decision at that point.”

Wasatch County Council chair Mark Nelson said the issue of the quorum did not occur to him before the meeting with Cox, and expressed regret for the meeting. He said he did not speak to Franco ahead of time about a quorum attending .

Franco did not provide the names of the councilors who she said talked to her about open meeting rules before the meeting.

In addition to Nelson, the other county councilors who attended were Kendall Crittenden, Marilyn Crittenden and Steve Farrell.

Kohler described the meeting as everyone going around the table introducing themselves, followed by Franco’s presentation. He called it an unfortunate oversight that a quorum was present.

Public bodies are required to receive annual training on open meeting laws, and Nelson confirmed that Wasatch County Council complies with that training requirement.

Michelle, who joined KPCW in 2021, arrived in Utah in 2018 by way of Massachusetts, where the skiing was icy and the mosquitoes formidable. A former daily newspaper reporter and editor (at the Visalia Times-Delta in CA) and columnist (at The Cohasset Mariner in MA), Michelle has been a writer and editor for decades. She holds a journalism degree from CSU Fresno and has worked as a journalist, freelance writer and web content creator, reporting extensively on education and youth along with general assignment and breaking news.