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July 22, 2014

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Henderson mayor says closed-door council sessions were proper

But in one case, state attorney general’s office disagreed

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Steve Marcus

Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen responds to a question Tuesday. He defended two recent City Council sessions held in private.

Steve Kirk

Steve Kirk

Kathleen Boutin

Kathleen Boutin

The city of Henderson appears to be getting used to conducting important business in private.

Secret meetings or votes by the Henderson City Council have occurred twice in the past several months.

In one of those instances, the attorney general’s office ruled the city violated the state’s open meeting law when it voted secretly to fill a council seat. In the other, two council members objected to the majority decision to hold a meeting on a Lake Las Vegas bankruptcy matter out of public view.

In both cases Mayor Andy Hafen, elected to the post by a razor-thin margin in June, supported the decision to conduct business in private.

“I think the thing the public really wants to be assured of is that there are no — quote-unquote — backroom dealings,” Hafen said Tuesday. “I think that’s what the public has the most distaste for, (the thought) of public officials sitting in the back room, smoking cigars and making deals. And certainly that was the furthest thing from this meeting.”

In the first instance, the council in a special meeting in July voted twice to determine who would fill the seat vacated by Hafen’s election. The votes were to narrow a list of 14 candidates and then make a selection by ranking the remaining candidates.

Debra March was chosen to fill the seat. But council members did not attach their names to either of the ballots — meaning there was no way to know which council member supported which candidate.

This prompted the Las Vegas Review-Journal to file a complaint with the state attorney general’s office, claiming the council had violated the state’s open meeting law. The attorney general agreed.

The law “requires public disclosure of each member’s vote so that the public will know how each member voted,” wrote Senior Deputy Attorney General George Taylor in an opinion issued this month. “Selection ballots should have been signed and the identity of the council member made known,” Taylor wrote.

(After the complaint was filed, council members at a subsequent meeting disclosed whom they had voted for.)

Meanwhile, the council in September decided in a 3-2 vote to hold a hearing on Lake Las Vegas resort bankruptcy proceedings behind closed doors. City Attorney Elizabeth Quillin advised the council to hold the meeting in private, and Hafen claimed that attorney-client privilege applied because the city is one of many creditors owed millions of dollars.

But the move proved contentious, as both council members who voted no — Steve Kirk, Hafen’s mayoral race opponent, and Kathleen Boutin — spoke out.

“I’ve been brought up to speed and we’ve never gone into closed session for it,” Kirk said.

In an interview Tuesday, Hafen defended the council’s actions in both instances. He added that neither case contradicted one of his campaign themes, encapsulated on his campaign Web site: “I want decisions to be transparent.”

Regarding the Lake Las Vegas vote, he said discussions about legal strategy are inherently attorney-client matters.

“Certainly, the city has a stake in these bankruptcy proceedings,” Hafen said. “And of course it’s so complicated, and there are several parties, that I just felt, and the city attorney advised us, that we should go into closed session.”

In the matter of March’s appointment to the council, Hafen said the situation was unusual so he asked the city clerk’s office for guidance. He said he didn’t think the council violated the open meeting law, but that it didn’t follow one of the law’s procedures — requiring revelation of each council members’ vote — a situation eventually rectified.

Ultimately, Hafen said, these instances of the council conducting business outside public view shouldn’t be a cause for concern. No constituents have approached him about it, he noted.

But Boutin, the city’s newest elected council member, disagreed.

“I regret having done anything that might have violated the public trust,” said Boutin, who noted that she was the lone vote to fill Hafen’s seat through an election as opposed to a council appointment.

In hindsight, she said, she wishes she had fought harder for an election, in part so that such an episode involving secret ballots could be avoided.

“My motto is, if we don’t want the general public knowing about it, we shouldn’t be doing it,” Boutin said.

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