A bill making its way through the 2015 Utah State legislative session might make it more difficult for local governments to exclude a council member from an open public meeting without a majority vote indicating that the member is disruptive or that there is an actual conflict of interest.
State Rep. Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan, with the support of Sen. Aaron Osmond, is proposing the amendment to address “concerns from many constituents” about a dispute in the South Jordan City Council that led to a resolution to exclude Councilmember Steve Barnes last year.
A June 2014 city council session ended in conflict when Barnes left the meeting early under protest and after threats from his peers on the council that he would be removed from the meeting.
Previously, Barnes had offered to recuse himself from any council action on a proposed city contract, due to a family connection at one of the companies under consideration. He intended to remain in the council session to observe discussion, however.
The next day Barnes received an email from then-City Attorney Robert Wall that forwarded the text of a unanimous resolution of the council formally excluding him from any meeting at which the council discussed a proposal to contract with a management company to work on the future of city-owned golf property, Mulligan’s Golf & Games.
The currently proposed state bill, which has just come out of a standing committee for a spot on the second reading calendar, retains current state law that allows the governing body of a city to expel a member of the government “for disorderly conduct on a two-thirds vote.”
Cunningham confirms that the bill does add a provision that a city council may expel a member on a two-thirds vote, where there is an actual conflict of interest with pending matters before the council. He notes that this compromise was necessary to align state law with various municipalities that have different policies on conflict of interest procedures.
Barnes is concerned that the bill may now go too far by explicitly allowing a council to exclude a member on a two-thirds vote where there is a conflict of interest.
“My hope is that the new legislation being considered does not broaden the power of a council to expel a member, including in closed sessions,” he said. “The only tie between the voters that I represent and what is being discussed is me.”
The discussion of the future of Mulligan’s has advanced considerably in the seven months since the dust-up that led to the proposed bill in the Utah legislature. Two separate surveys of South Jordan residents indicate a mandate to preserve the 67-acre site along the Jordan River at 10600 South in South Jordan as open space, rather than to consider its potential for development.
The council has appointed a review panel to consider options for best use of the property as the next step in determining the final fate of the city owned golf property and recreation center.