“Small business does not drive our economy”, stated the chair of the Flagstaff Regional Plan Citizens Advisory Committee (the CAC). “There is no right”, said another member. “I do think that the fact that I’m pretty much one of two of the most conservative people on this committee speaks to their absence”. This is how another member of the CAC, a self proclaimed “Obama Democrat” and an apparent strong supporter of liberal ideals, described the groups political makeup. An even larger issue though was that this was stated during a discussion that was not on the agenda, possibly violating Arizona’s open meeting law.
This is, in part, what I was referring to at the September 4th Council meeting when I raised concerns that the CAC needs to be more balanced and that new members need to be appointed so that the group is more reflective of the community’s values.
The voters of Flagstaff sent a strong message in May by electing a much more balanced City Council with a mix of views. One of my goals on Council has been to make sure that the residents of Flagstaff are being fairly and equally represented and also that our City Government is open and transparent. This is why I am very concerned that the current makeup of the CAC is not a balanced representation of our Community.
The Regional Plan is the guiding document for the Greater Flagstaff Area. It is intended to give a broad overview of the direction of the area including land use, transportation, economic issues and as described on the City of Flagstaff’s website, it “is a development and preservation guide for the City and the surrounding region”. One of the draft plans guiding principals is,
“#7. Expects and responds to an accountable and responsible community: Regional community leaders, commerce and residents expect nothing but best efforts by all, transparency and respect of each other in pursuit of our community vision“.
How can a document that is to “respect each other in pursuit of our community vision” do so if it is being drafted by and large by only one segment of our community? The plan needs a balance of ideals and view points.
So I spoke about these concerns during the public participation portion of the CAC meeting on September 6. The meeting proceeded for several hours mainly on the discussion of economic development, among other topics. At one point one member suggested that they discontiune the discussion on economic development until further members were appointed. This suggestion was turned down. Another discussion was on the need for open and transparent government as part of the Regional Plan. This openness and transparency, the same transparency that is in the document’s guiding principles, was not evident when a discussion on filling vacancies occurred, an item not on the agenda.
The CAC is bound by the same open meeting laws as we are on Council. So I was shocked when a nearly 20 minute discussion regarding allowing new members onto the CAC occurred. Before the discussion, the moderator and one City staff member, pointed out that the group should not discuss this matter since it was not on the agenda and that they recommended that the group submit “written comments only”. This advice was not heeded and they proceeded to state their opinions and whether or not they supported adding new members. For the record, two were in favor of adding members. The rest were not. Each of the members in attendance gave detailed reasons and opinions. As an elected official I take open meeting laws very seriously. Without these laws, decisions can be made behind closed doors without public participation. Surely a group that has been meeting for years and the staff that were in attendance are aware of open meeting laws. There is nothing open and transparent about weighing in on an issue that is not properly posted thus disallowing the public the opportunity to comment. The question has to be asked, what other topics have been discussed that were not on the agenda in the past? In fact, according to one member, the group often breaks up into smaller sub groups to make sugestions and alterations to the regional plan document. How is fragmenting into sub groups open and transparent?
As for my concerns about the balance and makeup of the group, I think that one of the CAC members really summed up what I am referring to when they spoke about the need for balance. He described himself as a solid Democrat, an Obama supporter. In fact he went on to say that he left the Chamber of Commerce because of their “opposition to Obama care”. He left the Realtors years ago because they “supported Paul Babbitt’s opponent for election to Congress”. Paul Babbitt is currently the chair of the CAC.
He said of the group, “there is no right”. “How would you define what’s not represented right now?”, the moderator asked. “Frankly I think that there’s a huge right wing in this community that evidenced itself in the last election, I’m not a part of them, I don’t represent them, but I do think that the fact that I’m pretty much one of two most conservative people on this committee speaks to their absence. We need someone who will put on those glasses and read this document with us from that perspective”.
That’s pretty powerful. I appreciate this gentleman’s integrity for speaking out on having fair representation, even if he may ultimately disagree with the ideas others may bring, that representation needs to be there. Without it, we have a document that many in the community may ultimately not be able to support.
On another note, I have suggested in the past that these special meetings, including Council Retreats, need to be recorded so that the public can view and/or listen to them. Equipment either needs to be brought to these meetings or they should be held at City Hall where the equipment already exists. Seeing and hearing is believing and knowing your actions are on tape is a good way to ensure that people that hold public trust stay accountable.
We need to get the Regional Plan completed in a way that is transparent and that truly reflects the diverse nature of our community. Openness and following the rules need to be top priority. I am well aware that ultimately this document will go before Council and the County Board but that does not mean we should not have a thorough and open process until that point. We’ve seen too many times that documents of this size can get pushed through the final process simply because some may say, “we can’t make lots of changes because so much work has already been put into it and that group worked really hard”. I would not want to see an unbalanced regional plan ultimately fail when voted upon by the voters in 2014. Let’s get this right. The Flagstaff City Council needs to address these issues. Let’s balance the group, get the process on track to completion and steer the final document towards a big picture plan of the direction the entire Community wants to head in. In order to achieve this, balanced and transparent representation is needed.
Update: The Flagstaff City Council will discuss this at the September 11th work session, 5:30PM, City Hall. Public comment is welcome and encouraged. You can also write your Council at council@FlagstaffAZ.gov or call 928-213-2015.