Our view: Public left in the dark by council | SteamboatToday.com

Our view: Public left in the dark by council

Our view — March 23
Courtesy Photo

At issue:

The City Council, in a 5-2 vote, opted to discuss the short sale of a former city manager’s home in executive session before voting to approve it with almost no public discussion.

Our view:

The current council inherited the problem, but by choosing to discuss their reasons for approving a short sale on the property behind closed doors, council members left the public with more questions than answers.

Our view — March 23

The decision by Steamboat Springs City Council back in 2006 to issue a $133,000 loan to then city manager Alan Lanning to help him purchase a home at the peak of the real estate boom was a bad decision at the time, and it has haunted subsequent councils ever since.

At issue:

The City Council, in a 5-2 vote, opted to discuss the short sale of a former city manager’s home in executive session before voting to approve it with almost no public discussion.

On three occasions, council members voted to extend Lanning’s no-interest, no-payment loan in hopes the city could eventually recoup taxpayers’ money. Under the terms of the original contract, Lanning was supposed to repay the loan six months after he resigned in July 2008.

Last week, the current City Council voted unanimously to accept a short sale on Lanning’s house. In return, the city will receive only a portion of the money it is owed. Council also opted to accept a promissory note from Lanning for the balance of the loan left unpaid after the sale.

We’d be interested to know how the council came to its decision Tuesday night, but it appears those questions will remain unanswered, because the council acted behind closed doors with almost no public discussion before or after the final vote.

We understand this problem was not created by the current council, but we do find fault in how it chose to handle the issue. The Lanning home loan has been a controversial topic for almost eight years now. It involved an unwise expenditure of taxpayer dollars, and we believe the public deserved more information than it received Tuesday night.

Council President Walter Magill and Councilman Scott Ford had the public’s best interests in mind when they proposed the council conduct at least part of the discussion about the Lanning short sale in open session, and we wish the rest of the council would have followed their lead.

Instead, the council opted to enter closed session with a few members promising to disclose more information before the public vote. That never happened. Only Magill offered an explanation for the council’s vote; the rest of the council remained silent.

Just because real estate was the topic of discussion doesn’t mean the council couldn’t have openly discussed the reasoning behind their votes to approve the short sale and accept a promissory note from Lanning. We’re not arguing that real estate negotiations should not be handled in executive session, but we think a lot of what the council most likely talked about would have been more appropriately handled in open session.

We hope the city has learned from the mistakes of previous councils and does not repeat the blunder it made with Lanning. And we take this opportunity to encourage current council members to re-evaluate their use of executive sessions. By conducting the Lanning short sale discussion entirely behind closed doors, they deprived the public of knowing how and why the decision was made.

At the very least, the council should have reconvened in open session and discussed their rationale for accepting the short sale and a promissory note before voting on it. Without knowledge of what led to the council’s decision, this issue is still not resolved. The public is left with unanswered questions that could have been addressed with a more open discussion.

Now, instead of just accepting their losses and moving on, the city is holding onto a promissory note, which, based on Lanning’s payment history, appears worthless. We don’t know if this was the city’s way to move forward or if it actually expects to get paid. The public now must make its own inferences, which is unfortunate.

City business involving taxpayers’ money must be conducted openly and transparently, and we hope the council, moving forward, will think long and hard before it uses its executive session privilege. Decisions made in secret leave the public in the dark.

On a final, and somewhat ironic, note, City Council’s disagreement over whether to go into closed session for the Lanning short sale discussion occurred in the middle of Sunshine Week — a national initiative, celebrated each spring, to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

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