Steamboat Council’s talks about Brown Ranch have been largely behind closed doors — some members think that should change
Annexation Committee meetings are public, but City Council has only talked about the process in public for less than 30 minutes
Since the start of Brown Ranch annexation talks on Jan. 20, Steamboat Springs City Council has met twice in executive session to talk about extending the city, but council members have only discussed the process in public for 26 minutes.
City Council met behind closed doors for nearly two hours Feb. 28 to discuss three topics, including the Brown Ranch annexation plan. On March 7, council had another discussion in executive session for an hour and seven minutes with annexation being one of two topics. Another closed-door meeting to discuss Brown Ranch annexation is on council’s agenda for Tuesday, March 22.
When council members discussed the annexation process in December, they made it clear executive sessions would be part of the process but also emphasized the need for transparency. Two council members said executive sessions should only be used when necessary.
But nearly two months after the start of the annexation process, City Council has not had significant discussions in public. The only extended public conversation came on Feb. 7, when council discussed for 17 minutes how information would be disseminated from the Brown Ranch Annexation Committee to council members not on the special committee.
The Yampa Valley Housing Authority Board has not utilized an executive session to discuss Brown Ranch annexation, and last discussed the process for 35 minutes on March 9. Brown Ranch Annexation Committee meetings have been entirely open to the public and allow for comments.
Following the annexation committee’s meeting Wednesday, March 15, City Council President Robin Crossan and council member Joella West, who are representing the city on the committee, defended the use of closed-door meetings when taking negotiation directions from the rest of City Council.
“When we’re going into an executive session it’s like, ‘OK, this is the new wording for X, Y and Z. Do you like this wording or not? What do you want us to take back?‘ It’s negotiating,” Crossan said. “It’s the rest of council telling us that they liked the way we’re going or they don’t like the way we’re going. ‘Did you think about this? Did you think about that? This is what direction we want you to go.’”
“This is a piece of paper, this is a contract,” West said. “I heard a lot of that discussion (in December) about how everything should be open and transparent and everybody should have the ability to see everything that goes on. My understanding was never that meant that we should be discussing phrases on a piece of paper in public.”
Asked about the use of executive sessions on Friday, March 17, council member Michael Buccino said he doesn’t think anything council has talked about in executive sessions regarding the Brown Ranch annexation needed to be shielded from public view.
“There’s nothing that we’ve talked about so far that’s warranted an executive session in my opinion,” Buccino said. “I think we set that up as a protocol to see how it goes, and we really haven’t, you know, questioned it.”
During the annexation of West Steamboat Neighborhoods, City Council negotiated directly with developers in public sessions. YVHA board member Kathi Meyer, who is representing the housing authority on the annexation committee, was on City Council during those talks.
“That made for some long meetings, understandably, but everybody knew where everybody stood,” Meyer said. “My frustration (with the current process) is I would like to hear directly what some of the concerns are. … The question is what’s best as in terms of trying to address problems and issues.”
At council members’ December meeting, they agreed to pursue the annexation process by forming a committee to come to an agreement that would then have to be approved by City Council and the housing authority board.
“Staff’s goal would be to make this process as transparent as possible to the public,” Planning Director Rebecca Bessey said as she presented the plan.
Council members discussed the use of executive sessions and ultimately decided to put one on every council meeting agenda going forward in case they need to hold private discussions. However, Buccino and council member Dakotah McGinlay said they wanted to limit the use of executive sessions.
“Executive sessions only as needed,” Buccino said. “Let’s be as transparent as we can in these chambers.”
Dec. 13 – Steamboat Springs City Council directs staff to pursue an agreement with the Yampa Valley Housing Authority to set up the Brown Ranch Annexation Committee, a process that hopes to get an annexation agreement in both an efficient and transparent manner.
Jan. 17 – Council approves a memorandum of understanding with housing authority creating the Brown Ranch Annexation Committee.
Jan. 20 – The Brown Ranch Annexation Committee meets for the first time.
Feb. 7 – Council discusses annexation process in public for 17 minutes. Discussion largely focuses on how information will be relayed to council from the committee and the use of transcripts.
Feb. 28 – Council meets in executive session for 1 hour, 56 minutes, to discuss the Brown Ranch annexation, a second sheet of ice at the Howelsen Ice Arena and the sale of property on Yampa Street. The discussion about Brown Ranch in public lasts less than two minutes.
March 7 – Council meets in executive session for 1 hour, 7 minutes with the topics being the Brown Ranch annexation and sale of property on Yampa Street. Council member Joella West gives a public update on annexation that lasts about seven minutes, but there is no broader discussion among council.
“If we really want transparency with the community, we don’t want all of our conversations to be in executive session,” McGinlay said.
Other council members also emphasized the importance of transparency throughout the annexation process.
“We need community engagement; we need to be transparent; we need to be accountable,“ Council member Gail Garey said.
“Looking at what the most positive and potential way to make sure that the public is understanding what is going on is my biggest goal,” council member Heather Sloop said.
Still, Crossan said City Council will need to continue to meet behind closed doors at some points throughout the annexation process.
“Sometimes, it’s important to talk about it not in the public eye,” Crossan said. “The more we can be transparent the better, but if we have to go into executive session and then come out and say what we are able to say, we will.”
Prior to going into executive session, Crossan has read the appropriate statutes that allow for closing a meeting to the public with specific reasoning being “determining positions relative to matters that may be subject to negotiations, developing strategies for negotiations and instructing negotiators.”
Following each of the two executive sessions regarding annexation, Crossan has asked if any council members thought any of what was discussed was improper. No council member has spoken up to say they thought anything was.
Buccino said he had not considered whether those discussions needed to happen in executive session until asked by the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Friday. He noted that following City Council’s talks behind closed doors, there hasn’t been much discussion.
“We didn’t talk about it in public, and I think maybe that’s what we should do,” Buccino said. “There is a reason to have executive sessions at the right time, but we also have on the agenda to have a community report for 30 minutes about what happened when we negotiated, and I don’t think we’ve really spent 30 minutes.”
Following the Feb. 28 executive session, the Brown Ranch annexation update lasted two minutes. On March 7, the update was just shy of seven minutes. What happened during executive session was not shared in those updates.
Sloop said the first executive session probably could have been a public discussion, as many things they are discussing are still at a high level. After that one, Sloop said, it was “probably better that we didn’t.”
“With the conversations that had been had, I would agree that they needed to be executive,” Sloop said.
Garey said she did not feel anything that has been discussed in executive session should have been in public, but she has heard requests for more transparency.
“I think there’s a desire for more transparency,” Garey said. “As we discuss issues, I think we just need to take that into consideration in terms of when it is appropriate or how we continue to make sure that we keep everyone informed about the discussions that are happening.”
McGinlay said she believes transparency is the ultimate goal of the annexation process, but she added that some discussions did need to happen behind closed doors.
“I think we’re working towards finding a balance,” McGinlay said. “I would like to see us having more discussion in council meetings rather than executive session or being able to come out of executive session and discuss in length what went on in an executive session if there’s pieces of that that could be more open.”
Council member Ed Briones did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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