Public Debate in Virgin: Put Up, Shut Up Anyway
Editors note: this story originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune Oct. 26, 2002.
Free speech isn’t free at Virgin town meetings. Sometimes it costs 25 bucks.
To get on a Town Council agenda in this small southwestern Utah community, people have to fork over $25. Even then,
Mayor Jay Lee has the final say about whether fee payers get their say.
Lee said earlier this week he could not remember when the policy took effect or whether the council approved it. He said the fee was necessary to "pay for the secretaries’ time" and other town administrative costs.
The mayor, elected to a second term last year, said he would answer further questions only if they were faxed to him. Questions faxed to him Tuesday by The Salt Lake Tribune had not been answered by Friday.
However, The Tribune did receive a fax of the town newsletter Friday. It listed rules for introducing discussion items at town meetings, and said all requests should be put in writing, signed and turned in at the Town Hall by the Tuesday before the next council meeting. The newsletter cautioned speakers not to use their time as a "gripe session" or "slander session" and that the discussion should be "positive."
There was no mention of a fee. Whether that indicates a change in policy could not be determined. Lee did not return calls Friday seeking comment.
But charging an agenda fee certainly has been the policy in Virgin.
Councilman Bill Johnson, who has wrangled with Lee over land issues, said he paid $25 to secure a spot on last month’s council agenda. The first-term councilman said he coughed up the fee because the mayor kept tabling many of his motions.
"I just wanted to codify when minutes of previous meetings would be available, and when I could receive an agenda for the next meeting so I could research the issues," Johnson said.
The money did not speak loud enough, though. Lee rejected Johnson’s agenda item and the town refunded the $25.
Johnson, elected a year ago, said he has complained about the fee and the difficulty of getting public records, but has not pushed the issue. "I have to pick and choose my battles [with the mayor]," said Johnson, adding that he could find no official record of when or how the fee policy began.
The policy also may have been applied inconsistently. Johnson alleges that some developers and friends of the mayor have not had to pay the fee to get on the agenda.
Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, said he could not comment on the legality of the practice. "But we’d be glad to look into it if someone requested it," he said.
Virgin came under scrutiny last year from the Attorney General’s Office over a short-lived statute shepherded by Lee requiring every household to own a firearm.
As for the agenda fee, Cassie Dippo, Utah issues coordinator for the government-watchdog organization Common Cause, said she has never heard of such a policy before. "It seems inappropriate for a public forum," Dippo said.
That is how the residents group Friends of Virgin sees it, too. The grass-roots organization paid $25 in June to get on Virgin’s agenda to speak out against a proposed group home for troubled teens. The request was denied and the money returned.