The West Jordan City Council meets twice a month to conduct the people’s business, but only twice last year did the council let the people stay for the whole meeting.
For a second year, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens reviewed the number of meeting closures for all 16 municipalities in Salt Lake County, and West Jordan was at the top (or bottom) of the list this year. The city council closed at least part of 25 of its 27 meetings last year (93 percent).
And while Stevens found that overall the cities closed slightly fewer meetings last year than in 2016, there are huge disparities among the 16 cities. Given that the work is essentially the same for all of them, it’s hard to see why some councils need to stay out of the sunshine.
In addition to West Jordan, other big closers are Cottonwood Heights (75 percent) and Bluffdale (65 percent). Meanwhile, Murray City continues to be the open-meetings winner, basically reversing West Jordan and only closing part of two meetings out of 26 (8 percent). Millcreek, the newest city in the county, is starting off strong, closing only 15 percent of its meetings.
Under the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act, city councils have to inform the public in advance what they will discuss and make sure residents can show up to watch. There are exceptions under which the councils can close their meetings. Those include discussions of real estate transactions and lawsuits – where there is a strategic incentive to close the doors – and personnel issues — where employees have legitimate privacy concerns.
Even then, the councils have to be very specific about addressing only those issues privately, and all final decisions still need to be made in open meetings. No one is saying the councils are closing meetings in violation of Utah law, but that speaks to the very reason for opening meetings in the first place. Residents don’t know if the closures were proper because they can’t know what was discussed when the door closed. Residents have to trust their city attorneys to keep their councils within the law, and not all attorneys interpret the law the same way.
News organizations, including this newspaper, have consistently championed open government laws. Every reporter has a story of being thrown out of a meeting, and they know when a meeting can be closed legally.
But in these challenging times for local journalism, reporters are not present at the vast majority of city council meetings in Salt Lake County. It is city residents who perform most of the watchdog role, and they’re also the voters.
If the councils don’t see the benefits of sunshine, residents should throw some shade on election day.