The state's sunshine law was almost eclipsed in Highland on Tuesday.
Mayor James A. Hewlett opened a joint meeting of the City Council and Planning Commission to the public and press after initially scheduling a closed meeting to discuss commercial zoning in the city.Since incorporating 13 years ago, Highland has not allowed commercial development, preferring to maintain the city as a bedroom community. The Planning Commission is in the process of reviewing the city's master plan, including its "no commercial development" philosophy.
That process is being nudged by a developer interested in building a small shopping center at the junction of the Alpine Highway and U-92 - commonly referred to as the "four corners" area. The primary tenant of the center would be a grocery store operated by Gerald Day of Heber.
The prospect of opening the city's doors to commercial development is sparking debate among residents.
Which is apparently why Hewlett proposed a closed session Tuesday night.
City Recorder Winfred Jensen told the Deseret News on Tuesday afternoon the meeting was closed because City Attorney Vern Romney was going to provide a "legal opinion" on commercial zoning. When contacted by the Deseret News, Romney said he was "not sure of the nature of the meeting." He said he planned to be available for discussing legal issues with the council and commission. At the meeting, Romney did explain court cases on zoning disputes in Utah.
Planning Commission Chairman Bill Blomquist told the Deseret News that Hewlett had called the meeting for "nothing specific." He said the two bodies wanted to meet to "have some input from each other," to talk to each other "so we can air some ideas."
According to the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act - the sunshine law - public entities may hold closed meetings in only the following cases: to discuss personnel matters; for strategy sessions with respect to collective bargaining, litigation or purchase of real property; to discuss deployment of security personnel or devices; to investigate proceedings regarding allegations of criminal misconduct.
After announcing Tuesday night that the meeting would remain open, Hewlett read a statement blasting the media for, among other things, "the practice of reporting in the press of information discussed and decisions reached in an open meeting before the city has had a chance to contact the party concerned."
Hewlett said Highland has "enjoyed a rather low media profile. . . . On occasion an issue is raised that is granted greater attention as `media material' than other issues of equal worth in terms of the safety, health and welfare to the community.
"Most often, the media attention is given to an issue that is so new that it is still undefined or unexplored by a governing body," Hewlett said. "When focus is placed on such issues for the pure sake of a story and, most often to satisfy a deadline, only half-baked versions and incomplete thinking is available. The issue may merely be in the planning stages. The story when reported, therefore, most often results in controversy."
Hewlett said he was "offended by the media's notion that governing bodies aren't considered mature and responsible enough to find the best solution to community issues without the element of controversy."
An example of that was media coverage of Highland's new city building, Hewlett said, which he characterized as "one of the most significant events in our city's history."
"Highland spent considerable time, effort and, as a result of the media's intervention, controversy in the construction of this fine building," he said.
"When the decision to build was finally made, the hype and controversy waning, where was the media when we announced and invited them to cover our groundbreaking?"