Under Utah's Open Meeting Law, every meeting of a public body must be open to the public unless closed by procedures outlined in the law, and only for limited reasons.
The only purposes for which meetings of such bodies may be closed are for "discussion of the character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of an individual;" strategy sessions about collective bargaining, litigation, or purchasing real estate; security discussions, or investigations of criminal misconduct.Then how could the Quail Creek Dike Technical Review Board hold secret meetings in St. George last week?
The board is a panel of advisers appointed by Gov. Norm Bangerter to study the cause of the Jan. 1 dike failure. Its members are paid by state funds.
Robert L. Morgan, the state engineer and the director of the Utah Division of Water Rights, said the fees for some of these consultants "run into expenses plus several hundred dollars a day, each."
Its three latest meetings were labeled "private" and closed. The schedule announced these sessions were for "panel member reports" and "panel deliberations."
Reports and deliberations are not on the list of reasons for which a state advisory panel's meeting may be closed. In fact, the law's preamble specifically says deliberations should be open.
Morgan said his understanding is, "if it's a fact-finding situation that those are open, and I was instructed so by the attorney general's office."
But the attorney general's office maintains that such a board's deliberations may be held in private, he said.
Mike Quealy of the attorney general's office said the opinion was that of the office, not only himself. He based it on a Utah Supreme Court decision, Common Cause vs. the Public Service Commission.
The decision "said that while a deliberative body should have the meetings where they're gathering evidence or facts open to the public . . . the evaluation phase . . . could be done without public participation."
But Randy Dryer, the Deseret News' lawyer, said, "I don't believe that the Common Cause decision provides a basis to close the deliberative process of the Quail Creek study committee.
"The Public Service Commission, when it deliberates, is clearly performing a judicial or a quasi-judicial function. The critical part is that the PSC resolves factual disputes, they apply principles of law, and they decide public policy - all of which is subject to appellate review. They in essence are functioning like a trial court."
The Quail Creek panel does none of those. While it may resolve some factual questions, it doesn't do it in a judicatory sense. Unlike the PSC, there's no appealing its findings to the Supreme Court.
When Quealy was asked to respond to Dryer's comment that closure can be permitted only for judicial-type bodies, he said, "I would disagree with that."
Shouldn't deliberations of such a panel be public, in accordance with the act's preamble? Quealy replied, "Not under our readings of the PSC case."
Does this closed-door policy apply to any type of public body, judicial or non-judicial? "I don't know . . . I'm not familiar with every public body in the state of Utah so I can't answer that question," he said.
Dee Hansen, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said "executive session" meetings make sense because that's where the panelists can thrash out their ideas in private. They can bounce good ideas and bad ones off each other without fear of looking silly.
Hansen makes a logical case for closing the meetings, from the standpoint of a government officer looking for quality work. After all, the panel's report will be public.
Still, the public has a stronger interest in seeing that our employees carry out their duties up-front, in the glare of public scrutiny. That's why the word "deliberations" is in the law's preamble.
Our right to know may be inconvenient to the government - but then, so are a lot of other rights.