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Provo mayor, council issue fighting words

Conflict revolves around closed panel meetings

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Lewis Billings

Lewis Billings

PROVO — The mayor of Provo is accusing the City Council of holding illegal, closed meetings.

The council chairman, a former mayor, is firing back. He says the mayor is wrong and is using "untrue and unwarranted innuendos."

And attorneys for both sides say their man is right and the other is wrong.

Mayor Lewis Billings vetoed an ordinance late Wednesday, then informed the City Council of the veto in a letter that was meant to remain private, city spokeswoman Raylene Ireland said.

But it isn't the veto that became the talk of Provo politics.

Instead, it's Billings complaint in the letter that closed meetings held by the City Council's three-member land-use subcommittee are bad policy.

Billings said other council members, the public, developers and others are not allowed to attend the meetings and that the three members of the subcommittee make decisions and then "selectively reach out to other members of the Council in an effort to obtain the needed 'one more' vote."

"This is not good process and in the opinion of the administration fails to meet the requirements of the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act."

Billings called for all council subcommittee meetings to be noticed as full council meetings are, in the Deseret Morning News and in public places like the city center and the city library.

He also called for minutes to be kept, as they are for subcommittees in Congress and the state Legislature.

Council chairman George Stewart, who proceeded Billings as mayor, has wrangled with Billings several times during the 14 months since he returned to Provo politics as a council member.

He strongly objected to the mayor's letter in one of his own.

"Your comments seem to intimate that in some sinister way, the votes on land-use issues are predetermined by the land-use committee plus 'the needed one more vote.' The facts do not bear out this innuendo," Stewart wrote.

There is no land-use voting block, Stewart said, and the public is well served by the process he implemented because all items considered by the land-use committee first go through the Planning Commission, then are considered in open city council meetings.

Planning Commission meetings are noticed and public.

City Attorney Robert West backed his boss, Billings.

West said a Massachusetts court ruled that three-member subcommittees of a seven-member commission must make decisions in order to make recommendations to the committee.

"Similarly," West wrote in an eight-page memo, "although subcommittees of the Provo Municipal Council are not given the authority to make final and binding decisions, they are given the authority to make decisions and come to conclusions that they will represent to the council."

West also argued that when two members of a three-member subcommittee attend a subcommittee gathering, there is a quorum and the meeting should be considered open and be noticed.

City Council attorney Neil Lindberg issued a two-page memo of his own on Thursday.

"The land-use committee cannot bind, control or otherwise determine the end result of the decision-making process," Lindberg wrote. "It has no actual or de facto decision-making power. It cannot take official action on any matter. In fact, it does not vote or decide upon any matter. That is done only by the council."

Lindberg said the Massachusetts ruling is too narrow to apply to Provo.

The spat obviously will lead to more discussion, which was the mayor's original intent, Ireland said.

"We're going to have a vigorous debate on this," she added. "The mayor feels strongly. The City Council feels differently. There'll be a lot said at coming meetings, and rightly so. We need to get down and look at this really hard."

As for that pesky veto, it became public when the mayor's letter was leaked to the media.

Ireland said a press release would have been sent Thursday. Billings just beat the 6 p.m. Wednesday deadline to veto the ordinance, which would have required new homes west of I-15 to be at least 1,800 square feet.

The west side is peppered with smaller, starter-size homes. The majority of the council would like to see larger homes in the area so families could stay in Provo as they grow.

Ireland said Billings knew Stewart was in the building as the veto deadline approached and decided to use the opportunity to veto the ordinance, draft the letter and hand-deliver it so the two could discuss it.

Billings applauded the council's effort to adopt policies stabilizing neighborhoods.

He said the public could have improved the ordinance if it could have been involved in the process earlier.

The council approved the ordinance Feb. 7 by a vote of 4-2. Barbara Sandstrom and Steve Turley opposed it, and Midge Johnson was absent.

Stewart said in an interview Thursday that Billings could have raised the issue in person without the veto or the letter.

"He knew it would become a public issue," Stewart said.

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com