Investigation Shows City Violated Open Meeting Law
In a ruling released December 11, 2020 the state Attorney General’s office found the Reno City Council in violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law, following an investigation into a complaint filed by Scenic Nevada after a board member witnessed the council shut out the community from live public comment but allowed a university official to speak on the Zoom telecast.
The city was found in violation of the state laws – meant to provide public access to government meetings – because of actions taken during a public hearing on changing the city’s skyway ordinance to benefit the University of Nevada, Reno. A skyway is a pedestrian bridge over a public roadway. The text amendment hearing was part of a regular teleconference council meeting held July 22, 2020.
Not Everyone Was Allowed to Comment Live
As a Scenic Nevada board member was watching that day, the council allowed UNR’s representative Heidi Gansert to offer public comment live during the skyway text amendment hearing. But her public comments were largely about the proposed UNR skyway project and the necessity of not holding up the project for a citizen review.
When we tried to access the live meeting to rebut her comments, we were told no. The City Clerk’s office said the council wasn’t taking live public comment even though it did take public comment from Ms. Gansert.
The AG’s office agreed that the Open Meeting Law had been violated but not for barring live public comments. It said the city council had met public comment requirements by allowing emails and phone calls. Instead, the AG’s office said the city had violated the requirement that agenda items must reflect the topic to be discussed. The agenda item was described as a skyway text amendment and made no mention of UNR’s skyway project. Under the Open Meeting Law, agendas must consist of “a clear and complete” statement of the topics scheduled.
“In this case, based on the plain text of the Council’s Agenda Item E.2, the clear and complete standard was violated, as there was no indication that the Council would consider the specific UNR skyway project,” the AG’s office said in its ruling.
“By straying away from a discussion focused on the proposed text amendment and by allowing Ms. Gansert to address the Council regarding details of the specific UNR skyway project, the Council violated the OML’s clear and complete standard,” the ruling continued. To read the ruling, click here.
At a subsequent council meeting in August final approval was given for the skyway text amendment exempting UNR’s skyway project from scrutiny by a citizen panel of design professionals in a 4-2 vote, paving the way to approve the project. Mayor Schieve and Council Member Naomi Duerr opposed, and Council Member Jenny Brekhus abstained because at the July 22 hearing, “No one got to talk except one person.” The Council then approved the skyway project at the same meeting in a 4-3 vote, with Mayor Schieve and Council Members Brekhus and Duerr opposed.
A Rebuke Rather Than a Remedy
The remedy we sought in our complaint asked the AG to call for a new public hearing – a do over – on the text amendment, which probably would mean the city would have to walk back approvals for the UNR skyway.
But, instead, the AG’s office said that for violating the “clear and complete standard” the council is required to include an item acknowledging the AG’s opinion along with attaching the written ruling on its next agenda. The next city council meeting is January 13, 2021, according to the city’s website.
The AG’s office also said that it has the power to bring a lawsuit against the city to get an action voided to comply with the Open Meeting Laws. But the ruling said that because “no action” was taken on the skyway project at the July 22 meeting the AG’s office will “abstain from bringing suit at this time.”
The city council did not act on the skyway at the July 22 meeting, but it did act on the text amendment, giving initial approval which laid the groundwork to approve UNR’s skyway project the following month. The 245-foot-long skyway will be located near the original entrance to campus on the south end taking out three tall trees and ruining forever an undisturbed greenbelt that fronts majestic Morrill Hall, built in 1886; a scenic view that has stood for more than a century.