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Riverton faces suit over closed meeting

Developer says council secretly discussed project

RIVERTON — What did the City Council talk about in a Jan. 23 closed session? That's what Anderson Development wants to know.

In a civil lawsuit filed March 7 in 3rd District Court, attorney Michael Hutchings alleges the council violated the Utah Open and Public Meeting Law by holding a closed meeting without giving notice. Then, he alleges, the city further violated the law by straying from the topic it said it would discuss in the closed meeting.

Hutchings, representing Gerald Anderson, is also suing the city in U.S. District Court for Utah for more than $10 million, alleging a violation of civil rights. Both lawsuits stem from the council's decision to deny a rezone application for a controversial 54-acre mixed-use development. Hutchings hopes to use minutes from the Jan. 23 meeting to help persuade the state to overturn the council's decision.

Minutes from the Jan. 23 public meeting state that the council adjourned to a closed meeting to discuss "possible litigation." But the previously posted agenda for the public meeting does not give notice of a closed meeting following the regularly scheduled work session. That, Hutchings says, may be illegal.

Riverton City Attorney David Church says he interprets the open-meeting law to say that council members are allowed to call a closed session without giving notice if discussion during a regular public meeting leads them in that direction.

"I'm not sure what a court would do with that one," said Gavin Anderson, Salt Lake County deputy district attorney. At the county level, each meeting agenda includes a closed session, even if one is not planned, in case the County Council decides the path of a discussion merits taking it out of the public arena. When a government body begins shifting gears once in a closed meeting, he noted, it is "treading on thin ice."

Gavin Anderson added that state statute says there must either be a tape recording or detailed minutes from closed meetings that clearly show what was discussed. But no city recorder was present at the Jan. 23 closed meeting — meaning notes would have been taken by participants in the meeting, according to Riverton City Recorder Joan Cutler.

The closed meeting in January, said Church, was to discuss allegations from Hutchings that there was wrongdoing on the part of Councilman Steve Brooks for his role during the rezone application process. Then, the discussion could have been a personnel matter, said Church, who was not at the meeting.

If the council discusses a personnel matter, Church noted, no minutes are required and only an affidavit needs to be signed stating that the council discussed personnel. But the minutes say "possible litigation."

Cutler located minutes of the closed meeting, sealed in an envelope in a safe. City officials denied a Deseret News request to release the minutes under the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA).

Mayor Sandra Lloyd, who participated in the closed session, said that the council would "absolutely not" deviate from the intended subject.

"The smoking gun here is the minutes," Hutchings said. "I believe they discussed our project."