Third-party review finds City Council engaged in 'improper' practices in past several years

By News Record Staff

“Improper” practices were taken by City Council members over the last several years as they pursued city business with a significant lack of transparency, according to a sharply-worded review of City Council member conduct.

They conducted public city business behind closed doors, had illegal meetings and improperly used personal electronic devices, according to the comprehensive review released Wednesday by the city. It was conducted by Michael R. O’Donnell, former city attorney for Cheyenne and Donna A. Murray, former senior assistant attorney general, as engaged through the city of Cheyenne.

They were hired by the Gillette City Council in January to review allegations contained in text messages released by former city administrator Patrick Davidson in late 2021.

The texts led to the resignation of former Mayor Louise Carter-King.

That review was completed Monday and found that the City Council had engaged in a number of improper actions, including improper use of executive sessions, conducting public meetings without proper notice, failure to maintain respect and civility, improper use of personal electronic devices and improper influence on city staff.

“It is incumbent upon local elected officials to be aware of the purposes of the Open Meetings Law. Based upon the records reviewed, and the interviews conducted by ODonnell and Murray, it appears that members of Gillette’s governing body fundamentally misunderstood these purposes,” the report says. “Proper notice and transparency are not just minor details which can be overlooked. Unfortunately, it appears that these fundamental requirements of public meetings were ignored and intentionally avoided by Council.”

“We recognize that (City Council) has gone through a recent period which has damaged public trust,” said Mayor Eric Hanson in a press release. “We’ve made a lot of big changes over the last few months and look forward to moving ahead while continuing to rebuild that sense of trust with our community.”

The report avoided attributing specific instances of conduct to a particular City Council member, with an attempt to focus on best practices for the future.

The full report has been posted to the City of Gillette website here.

In order to obtain context and understanding, O’Donnell and Murray obtained printouts of the text messages, then collected texts and emails from current members of Council that roughly corresponded to the period of time of the revealed text messages.

They also conducted a number of voluntary interviews with council members, and reviewed many other records from 2019 to 2021.

Bruce Moats, an attorney used by the Wyoming Press Association for issues such as open meetings laws, said O’Donnell and Murray “have done the state a great service.”

“There are so many important points made about the proper conduct by elected officials,” he said. “This is not just a problem in Gillette, but it is a problem across the state, particularly the use of private electronic devices to either evade the Public Meetings Act, or the Public Records Act.”

Improper use of executive sessions

Repeated improper uses of executive sessions, or discussions that are closed to the public, were found. A limited number of topics may be discussed in executive session, and action can’t be taken during those sessions.

The attorneys reviewed public meeting minutes and executive session minutes, and they found that “it is clear that a pattern existed where City Council regularly, and improperly, conducted public business in executive session.”

Topics that were improperly discussed in executive session include:

  • the Madison water project
  • softball fields and concessions
  • hiring a search firm to find a replacement for the city administrator
  • financial ramifications of county commissioner actions
  • participation in rural health care grant
  • taxation possibilities for economic development
  • additional funding for Campbell County Weed and Pest
  • behavioral health issues with the local hospital
  • fire department funding

The list goes “on and on,” the report reads. The Cheyenne attorneys reviewed confidential executive session minutes along with other public documents to reach their conclusions.

The City Council has done “a tremendous disservice to the community” as a result of these “improper meetings,” the report reads, and that it is the City Attorney’s responsibility to advise the council against this activity.

“This pattern of Mayoral and Council behavior goes to the very heart of the purposes behind the Wyoming’s Open Meetings Law,” the report reads.

It also brings into question the legitimacy of action taken by the City Council at, or as a result of, those executive sessions.

Elected officials must be aware of the purpose of the open meetings law. Based on the text messages that were reviewed, it appeared that the City Council “ignored and intentionally avoided” the fundamental requirements of public meetings, the report reads.

Improper use of personal electronic devices

The review found that a number of council members used their personal electronic devices, such as phones, to conduct city business. There’s “nothing inherently wrong” with that, but the data on those devices is considered a public record.

During the review, O’Donnell and Murray asked for council members to provide access to emails and texts on their personal phones. Most of them cooperated, but “more than one member of Council did not provide such access and only provided snap shots of select texts and emails on their device.”

The review also found that some council members were posting on social media about local current events that could be considered to “be quite volatile.” While they’re free to do it, they must recognize that a post by an elected official can be “viewed in a different light than a post as a private citizen.”

“Public officials are rightfully held to a high standard on social media as they represent more than their own interests — they represent constituents whose interests may diverge from the personal views of the elected official,” the report reads.

There also were occasions where the City Council would take part in group texts or emails. When a quorum of council members is part of an electronic conversation, that qualifies as a public meeting.

“These conversations occurred with some regularity and were never preceded by proper notice. All of these meetings were improper and illegal,” the report reads.

Improper influence by elected officials

There were several instances where City Council members may have inappropriately influenced city staff.

“These allegations of undue influence involved situations where staff felt pressured to arrive at a particular result to advance the financial or other interests of the elected official,” the report reads.

They did not elaborate on what those cases were.

There also were allegations of elected or appointed officials “exhibiting improper conduct” toward city staff.

The scope of the review was not to determine how accurate these allegations were, just that they exist.

Conducting public meetings without notice

The review took issue with the City Council’s dinner meetings, pre-meetings, retreats and work sessions, saying those meetings were not properly advertised. It interpreted the meetings as “efforts to avoid public discourse.”

The dinner meetings and pre-meetings were held in “odd places” that made it difficult for the public to “attend or feel welcome,” the report reads.

Failure to maintain civility

The report also found a failure by some City Council members to keep things civil and respectful, undermining the public’s trust.

Elected officials “outwardly displayed anger at other officials or constituents, maligned or undermined others by use of electronic communications and social media,” the report reads.

Solutions

The report ended with six “best practices” that the city can implement to make things “as open, transparent and respectful as possible.”

They include:

  • Eliminating City Council dinner meetings, pre-meetings and other meetings that aren’t properly advertised
  • “Severely restrict(ing)” the use of executive sessions to topics specifically identified by state law
  • Providing proper notice for special meetings where a quorum of the City Council will be discussing city business. This includes group emails and texts.
  • Holding meetings in locations that are easily accessible by the public
  • Elected and appointed officials should try to restrict use of electronic communication to city-issued devices, realizing that data on their personal phones is public record

The review found that “nearly every recommendation arising from this review has already been implemented,” and that “the City of Gillette appears to be in good hands.”