Madison County inquiry finds no open meeting violation

From the Rexburg Standard Journal

By Emmilie Whitlock/Standard Journal writer

REXBURG — Findings of a recent investigation of the Madison County Commissioners have shown that the commissioners did not violate open meeting law.

The investigation comes after a complaint from local resident Kelly McKamey.

The complaint alleges that the commissioners were in violation of Idaho’s Open Meeting Law when all three commissioners — Kimber Ricks, Jon Weber and Todd Smith — and county clerk, Kim Muir, came to the Standard Journal office, allegedly holding an illegal meeting during a Nov. 25 visit to editor Greg Little.

Findings from the investigation reported that on Monday, Nov. 25 — a standard day for the commissioner meeting — the commissioners discussed an opinion article previously published in the Standard Journal.

The investigation reports that this discussion was not done during the meeting but at other times not on the record.

“As the lunch break began or at some point prior to the lunch break Madison County Commissioner, Kimber Ricks, told the other commissioners and the county clerk, Kim Muir that he was going to visit the new editor to the paper, Greg Little,” the investigation reported.

After lunch, Commissioners Jon Weber, Todd Smith, Ricks and Muir met with Little.

“The conversation may have started out welcoming Mr. Little to the community but quickly evolved into a heated discussion of the article,” the investigation reported.

The findings reported that after the discussion ended after anywhere from five to 15 minutes, the commissioners and county clerk left the office.

“There was no topic discussed during the meeting at the Standard Journal that would require a vote of the Madison County Commissioners,” the report found.

Bruce Pickett, prosecuting attorney for Bonneville County, reported that it is not a violation of Open Meeting Law for the Commissioners to be together, including at lunch, even though a quorum of members is present.

“Such contact between commissioners becomes a meeting that is governed by the Idaho Open Meeting Law only if there is a ‘receipt or exchange of information or opinion relating to a decision.’”

The law defines a decision as any “determination, action, vote or final disposition upon a motion, proposal, resolution, order, ordinance or measure on which a vote of a governing body is required, at any meeting at which a quorum is present…”

McKamey said in his complaint that it was his opinion that the decision to go and meet with the paper or even go to lunch is a decision that is made by the quorum of the commissioners and should comply with the Open Meeting Law.

“That opinion is not in conformity with the Idaho Open Meeting Law,” the investigative report states.

Furthermore, the results from the investigation indicate that Pickett does not believe that the legislature intended for the open meeting law to act as a bar to all communications between individual commissioners outside of open meetings.

“I find no meeting was held at the Standard Journal on November 25, 2013 that qualifies as a meeting under Idaho Open Meeting Law and therefore there was no violation of the Idaho Open Meeting Law,” Pickett wrote in his investigative report.

Included in McKamey’s complaint was the allegation that the commissioners came to speak with Little to “put pressure on the newspaper.”

According to the investigation findings, “Such conduct would still not qualify as a meeting under the Idaho Open Meeting Law as there was no ‘determination, action, vote, or final disposition upon a motion, proposal, resolution, order, ordinance or measure on which a vote of a governing body is required.’”

McKamey said he accepts the findings, but disagrees with the strict definition outlined in the investigative report.

“I believe that what was exposed is that all three (commissioners) and the county clerk, came under the auspices of welcoming Greg, but they came to dispute what he put in the paper. I believe it was very much a bullying and a shot across Greg’s bow,” McKamey said.

Ricks told the Standard Journal that unequivocally, it was never his intent to do any bullying.

McKamey also said he felt the investigation exposed the commissioners actions as making a statement that the newspaper needed to come to them for the facts. McKamey said he felt this was an additional positive outcome.

McKamey said he didn’t hold out a great hope that the commissioners would be in violation of the law. But McKamey said that just because they didn’t break the law doesn’t mean the commissioners didn’t do anything wrong.

“They want to contain any controversy that might make it look like they’ve done something wrong. They want the community to be peaceful and happy. If they can keep all communication with the paper filtered, then they get to keep that happy valley thing,” McKamey said. “(The investigation) exposed that tendency of them. That attitude was verified.”

Ricks called any accusation of trying to control the news “ridiculous.”

“There has never been an effort nor will there be any effort to control or influence the news by the commissioners,” he said.

Ricks also said he was glad to have the investigation over, and was not surprised at the results of the findings.

“I thought the investigation was thorough and I was pleased that it was settled the way it was,” Ricks said.

Ricks also said McKamey had discussed everything regarding the visit to the Standard Journal with the commissioners in an open meeting before he ever filed the reports.

“We discussed it openly before, we have no secrets,” Ricks said. “If there are any secret meetings, they are secret from me. I don’t know about them.”

Several in the community have questioned the cost the investigation will bring to taxpayers.

McKamey says he is aware of the cost, and even aware he will take heat for it.

“It’s our right to question the motives or activities of elected officials,” he said.

McKamey said the elevated cost of the investigation came because after he filed his initial complaint to Madison County Prosecuting Attorney Sid Brown, the investigation was deferred to Bonneville County.

“If Sid Brown could have been objective, there would have been very little to no cost. It puts a little concern with the county’s attorney’s office,” he said. “How can they examine local officials and not be objective?”

The Madison County Prosecuting attorney’s office told the Standard Journal that any time there is a conflict of interest — such as their office working with the commissioners — a special prosecutor is used, in this case the Bonneville County Prosecutor.

As of the time of press, the Bonneville County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the Madison County Clerk had not verified the total cost of the investigation.

From the Rexburg Standard Journal

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