PHOENIX — An ethics complaint filed against members of the City Council — the second in less than a year — centers around the frequency with which council members opt to discuss public matters behind closed doors.
Closed council meetings have been a bone of contention between city officials and residents since at least 2007.
Former council member Steve Schulman, coordinator of a council watchdog group and related Facebook page, filed a complaint in July after a two-part June 26 council meeting he said was in violation of state laws that permit only a limited number of topics to be hashed out in executive session.
Schulman, who expects a response from state officials by October, also filed a complaint against Councilwoman Carolyn Bartell last fall, alleging misuse of public funds in her duties as chairwoman of the Phoenix Phestival. Those charges were never investigated.
In his most recent complaint, Schulman asks state officials to confirm that Mayor Jeff Bellah and all six council members violated state law by discussing the salary of newly hired City Manager Steve Dahl behind closed doors and in designating individuals to conduct labor negotiations.
"There are legitimate reasons to have closed, executive sessions, and then there are kind of iffy reasons to have them, and then there are times it's a matter of, 'We're going to have one because we don't want anybody to know what we're doing,' " Schulman said.
On the discussion of Dahl's salary, Schulman pointed to a decades-old opinion of an attorney general that advised against such a practice. As for labor negotiations, they can be done in private, but forming a committee to conduct such negotiations does not require a closed session, he said.
While Schulman said he hopes to shed light on the frequency and content of closed meetings being held at City Hall, Bellah said he took full responsibility for preparing meeting agendas and that the city had every desire to be in compliance with state meeting laws.
Bellah, who acknowledges that the city's number of closed meetings have been excessive in recent years, voiced frustration with the amount of council time spent on fielding complaints and accusations that could easily be raised to the council.
Regarding the ethics complaint, Bellah said agenda items always are approved by city management and city legal counsel.
In his response to the State Ethics Commission, Bellah said he explained to state officials that the council had not knowingly violated any laws and, if they were in violation, would appreciate some guidance on how to be in compliance.
"I don't think we did anything wrong, and what I told them in the letter was that if we did do something wrong, tell us and we'll do it differently and move on," Bellah said Friday.
"I don't want to waste any money or time or energy on this that will prevent us from moving forward. The last (complaint) he filed ended up being rejected altogether, and they didn't even investigate. I really would like for the council to be able to move forward and not constantly be putting out little fires. If Steve felt we did wrong, why couldn't he come to us instead of causing a big furor with the state? We want to be in compliance."
Bellah said he hoped to offer improved training on open-meeting laws in the future and to significantly curb the number of closed sessions being held.
Schulman said his complaint was meant to document the city's disregard for state open-meeting laws.
"Use some common sense. Yes, you have to have labor negotiations in a closed session, but not when you're creating the team that's going to negotiate," he said.
"And they can say there's no law against something, but that doesn't make it right. There's no law against touching the third rail on a subway, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. If you're told you shouldn't do it, you don't do it."
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.