Arizona Eagletarian

Arizona Eagletarian

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Open Meeting Law be damned?

Why does it really matter that Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission seems to be getting comfortable making decisions behind closed doors?  

Before the IRC meeting began today, one gentleman reflected to me that it seemed like the commission was moving painstakingly slow. He asked me for my thoughts on the subject.  I told him I was more interested in this commission getting the job done right.

Back in February and early March, the first four IRC commissioners deliberated in executive session with Asst. Atty. Gen. Jim Barton and Secretary of State Ken Bennett over the question of whom to select for the fifth and final commissioner position.  More than one attorney suggested to me then that the process should have been done openly, allowing the public to observe.  

As that was the first official action taken by the newly reconstituted commission, I chalked it up to the learning curve.

Then, last week, an agenda item popped up unexpectedly for the executive session only meeting on April 27th.  I asked Executive Director Ray Bladine about it.  He explained he wanted to hire a deputy executive director and he had a specific candidate (Kristina C. Gomez) already in mind.  He wanted to pose the idea to the commission at the earliest possible time and no decision would be made until the next public meeting.

Today’s agenda item IV called for “discussion and possible action on retaining a Deputy Executive Director.”  During the meeting, but very distinctly before any motion was made (any action taken in accordance with Open Meeting Law on this item), Commissioner Herrera posed a question that shed important light on the situation.  

Herrera asked when Ms. Gomez would be starting her job as the new Deputy Executive Director. Additionally, Bladine reported that the Dept. of Administration already approved necessary changes to the position to facilitate her hiring. 

To what degree is the process of citizen driven redistricting endangered when substantive negotiation is carried on outside of public scrutiny?    Will they justify again circumventing Open Meeting Law by saying these two examples show that the right decision was reached even though it was done privately? 

Or is it more likely they will rationalize it based on the certain crescendo of concern they will hear from county elections officials wanting enough time to properly prepare for the 2012 elections?   

Or both?

Make no mistake; I am not criticizing Herrera (or any one commissioner).  On the contrary, Herrera has more frequently spoken out -- on the record -- in favor of conducting commission business publicly than any of the other commissioners.  

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Other news from today's IRC meeting:

Exec. Dir. Bladine gave his first report. He noted Buck Forst's first priority, when he begins his new job as the IRC computer support guy, next Monday will be to make streaming video available for all commission meetings.  He is not sure when this will be accomplished, as they do not yet have the equipment, but it will be the first priority.

Phone numbers have been assigned and plans are in the works, but there is no specific move in date yet for offices at the Evans House. And therefore, the phone lines are not yet activated.  Bladine has had discussions with the previous executive director, Adolfo Echeveste to get his insights on how things went ten years ago and what he thinks can be done differently.

The problems with accuracy of meeting minutes were not all resolved today. One change was made to (previously approved) minutes from the April 14th meeting.  Public comments this blogger made at that April meeting had been drastically mischaracterized.  One word -- "not" -- was added which then properly conveyed the message I had intended at that time.

The commission went into executive session at about 10:30am (properly so) for two agenda items.  First they worked on the language for the mapping consultant RFP (which is still not finalized).  They then spent several hours reviewing proposals from prospective legal consultants.  They brought in lunch and only took very brief breaks.  Emerging from executive session at 3:45pm, no action (not even to invite any of the prospects to interview or make presentations) was taken on the issue legal consultants today.

By 2:30pm, I was the only person left waiting for the end of the executive session.  And I'm glad I did.

For the record, the commission made a motion for McNulty to aggregate all of the comments made by commissioners in exec. session about the mapping RFP, have her send the comments to Freeman for review, who will send it on to Bladine, who will then forward them to all five commissioners.  The motion carried with no objection.

They then set meetings as follows:
  • Friday, May 6 a telephonic meeting for executive session only to discuss the mapping RFP.  The time is yet to be determined.
  • Tuesday, May 10, 9am in Tucson, public session at a location to be determined.
  • Thursday, May 12 (morning, I think 9am) in Phoenix.  This is a change.  Earlier, they had said the May 12 meeting would be in Tucson.
  • Thursday, May 26, in Phoenix.
Among the items for May 10th, they understand the Arizona solicitor general (who reports to Atty. Gen. Tom Horne) wants to make a presentation in hopes of being selected to provide legal consultation services to the commission.  It should also be noted that interim counsel, Asst. AG Jim Barton was not present for the portion of the executive session dealing with the legal consultant RFP responses.


4 comments:

  1. "Herrera asked when Ms. Gomez would be starting her job as the new Deputy Executive Director. Additionally, Bladine reported that the Dept. of Administration already approved necessary changes to the position to facilitate her hiring." What's known about the relationship of Ms Gomez to any of the commissioners? I wish they could understand that this, not so above board, behavior is why people don't trust govt.

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  2. Great reporting, Steve. Thanks for keeping me informed.

    I am really not that concerned with the open meeting issue. At this time, I can see the need to deal with personal issues and RFP's in private.

    And in politics, patience is important, but this process does seem to be dragging out.

    I am curious as to a timeline for all of the events to occur. When does this effort have to be completed by? (and I guess that raises the question of what is the definition of completed?) Is the IRC going to define a step by step process with targeted dates for each step? That would be really important to make sure this process is NOT rushed at the end.

    And as for the legal council, I can see this being very important. There are several significant legal issues involved – each of which takes some time to factor into the steps. The idea of INDEPENDENT suggests that the Arizona Attorney General office not be selected as the IRC legal council – but I can see lot of reasons to want/need to do this. (i.e. defending the outcome in the courts.)

    I am mostly interested in legislative districts, but I am curious....I have seen the census data and predict the new congressional district being located in the East Valley. Any prediction....could Matt Salmon and Kirk Adams possibly be in different congressional districts?

    Ken Pritsker

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  3. @Steve, I don't think there's anything sinister about Ms. Gomez or her knowing any of the commissioners. She worked for the first IRC as an outreach specialist.

    Some things are appropriate for executive session. However, regarding hiring Ms. Gomez, they took shortcuts for the sake of expedience. When they do so without consequence, it becomes easier to justify in their minds the next time. And the next time, the consequences in terms of public interest could be more substantial.

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  4. @Ken,

    Indeed, it IS appropriate for the IRC to discuss the RFP language and the responses in private. I have no problem with that.

    I do have a problem with how they handled the situation with Ms. Gomez. They had already interviewed her in executive session for the executive director position (which eventually went to Ray Bladine). Again, because they feel this is an acceptable "end," it appears they feel justified in the "means" they took to get there.

    I can't say whether they will adopt a project management strategy like you described but it seems reasonable for someone to propose it. They read my blog and will likely read your comment also.

    The concern you describe regarding the independence of the Attorney General's office is something that has been mentioned in public meeting(s). I understand that, in general, assistant Attorneys General are not partisan. I am confident that the commissioners will give this point plenty of consideration.

    As to where the new Congressional district lands, I will not speculate. I figure you are likely already aware of Redistrict Arizona, the online mapping tool sponsored by the Arizona Competitive Districts Coalition. I hope you participate in the contest and encourage others to do so also.

    Thanks for the feedback.

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