Council rejects executive session

In an almost unheard of action on Monday night, the Homer City Council voted not to go into executive session. Routinely, the council votes to go into executive session without discussion. 

With council members Catriona Reynolds, Gus VanDyke and Bryan Zak voting no, and David Lewis and Francie Roberts voting yes, on a 3-2 vote the council spiked a motion to meet in executive session to discuss city manager applicants. Council member Beau Burgess was absent.

The council earlier that night had interviewed four finalists (see story, pages 1 and 3).

The council sought to meet privately to discuss “subjects that tend to prejudice the reputation and character of any person,” one of the exemptions in the Alaska Open Meetings Act that allows private meetings. City Attorney Thomas Klinkner in a Jan. 21 memorandum to City Clerk Jo Johnson advised the city council it could meet in executive session “to discuss the merits of city manager candidates under this authority.”

In a letter from editor and publisher Lori Evans sent to the council, the Homer News encouraged members to vote down the motion. Evans wrote that the Open Meetings Act allowed a narrow restriction to discuss reputation and character, but that otherwise discussions of experience, education and background should be done in public.

In public comments before the executive session vote, Ken Castner echoed that advice.

“I want to join Lori Evans in hoping that you be very cautious in what you’re doing in executive session,” he said. “You have a poor record of what you’ve been doing so far.”

Castner referred to prior meetings of the City Manager Selection Committee, in which members Mayor Beth Wythe, Roberts, VanDyke and Zak met in executive session. At its Jan. 28 meeting, the committee met in executive session and modified its short list of applicants to the four interviewed Monday night, Jeffrey Trinker, Chris Johnson, Douglas Isaacson and Carey Meyer. 

According to its minutes, the committee did not take a vote in public. That is in apparent violation of Alaska Statute 44.62.310(b), which says, “Action may not be taken at an executive session, except to give direction to an attorney.”

When the motion to meet in executive session came up, Reynolds cited her training as a new council member with the Alaska Municipal League in Anchorage after being elected in October. She said she learned that the application process for positions like city manager should be public.

“While there may be some value to have discussion in executive session, I prefer most of it be done in public session,” she said.

Kathie Wasserman, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League, Juneau, said that was the training new representatives like Reynolds got at two days of training. 

“As much of it as possible should be in front of everyone,” Wasserman said council members are taught. “There should be a very fine line when they go into executive session.”

Reynolds asked for reconsideration when she learned of an issue with written comments about the applicants submitted at the meeting. The City Manager Selection Committee at its Jan. 14 meeting decided to give citizens a chance to write comments on forms at the meeting Monday night. According to the minutes, a motion to allow written comments did not mention discussing those comments in executive session.

City Clerk Jo Johnson wrote in a Jan. 15 memo to Klinkner seeking his advice on the public process that the comments would be considered in executive session.

“The attorney advised us that since the public was told those written comments would only be viewed by the council in executive session, we need to follow that protocol,” Johnson wrote in a follow-up email.

Reynolds said she had learned of that apparent promise to commenters after the vote to kill the executive session motion. Many of the people attending Monday’s meeting were city employees and some made comments. Reynolds’ motion for reconsideration died on a 3 yes, 2 no vote. Lewis, Reynolds and Roberts voted yes, and Zak and VanDyke voted no, short of the four votes needed to approve a council action. Protecting the commenters’ privacy was why she wanted to meet in executive session, Roberts said.

Homer’s city code does not identify written public comments as being kept from the public record, but Johnson said Monday’s comments are not public records because the  City Manager Selection Committee said written public comments would be viewed in executive session only.

After the executive session reconsideration vote failed, the council consulted with Klinkner and he advised them to consider a new motion to meet in executive session to view only the written public comments. Discussion of the applicants will be held in public at the council’s next meeting on Feb. 9. The regular meeting starts at 6 p.m. in the Cowles Council Chambers, City Hall.