The Nevada Attorney General’s Office has opined that Mesquite Regional Business looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck. So it’s a public body, or at least the equivalent of one, and should operate subject to the Nevada Open Meeting Law.
Community activist and former city council candidate John Williams filed a complaint with the AG’s office, saying the Mesquite Regional Business, Inc., Board of Directors doesn’t post agendas about its meetings, nor open them to the public.
George Taylor, the deputy attorney general who oversees open-meeting law complaints, released his opinion on Feb. 13.
Williams is exultant and who can blame him? He’s been at council meetings so often complaining you’d think he had actually been elected in 2013. But he’s discovered the public comment pulpit can be as powerful as one of those comfy swivel chairs behind the council bench.
Taylor cited a slew of reasons supporting his legal opinion why Mesquite Regional Business was a reasonable enough facsimile of a public body that it should follow the same rules.
Williams posted the heart of Taylor’s findings on “Let’s Talk Mesquite,” the weblog Williams operates with a crew of other like-minded activists who lean toward the Democratic Party end of the political spectrum.
Williams notes Taylor based his opinion on all aspects of Mesquite Regional Business, Inc. It does the identical job previously done by a city department and it’s almost totally supported by city tax dollars.
That could easily change down the road. The company’s 501(c)(6) tax-exempt status dictates that it be primarily supported by membership dues. That’s not happening. But even if its membership grows and it no longer needs a farthing out of the public coffers, it likely still will be deemed a public body by the attorney general
The reason is in Taylor’s conclusion.
“(Mesquite Regional Business, Inc.) was created by the action of the City of Mesquite’s Council on Oct. 23, 2012 when the Council approved an agreement that removed economic development from city government and directed the City Manager to implement the Committee’s recommendation that a nonprofit corporation be formed to pursue regional economic development.”
It doesn’t matter that the council didn’t pass a resolution. By giving the city manager direction, it created Mesquite Regional Business out of that exploratory committee which was honchoed by George Gault and after Oct. 23, 2013, morphed into Mesquite Regional Business, Inc., with Mr. Gault as its the president.
Conversely, Mesquite Regional Business could absolutely roll in taxpayer money and even have elected officials serve on its board and still not be a public body. But to do that, it could not be a child of city government. If the committee members who recommended the city farm out its economic development department to the private sector had simply gone back to their private lives, and some other folks had put a plan together and pitched it to the council, it would be a completely different story.
Different, especially if the new group had some prior experience at economic development or if the service had been put out to bid for all comers.
It didn’t happen that way, however, and Mesquite Regional Business will forever have an umbilical attaching it to city hall. The rule of thumb is clear: a body created by a public body is itself a public body.
How that contract was automatically approved for the upstart startup is another problem Williams has with the non-profit. And that non-profit status itself seems questionable to him and others at “Let’s Talk Mesquite.”
But Taylor’s only interest is the open meeting law and that’s all he addressed.
So what does Taylor’s opinion mean? First, it’s just an opinion. Mesquite Regional Business could ignore it. Of course, then things might end up in court and that would mean a judge would issue an opinion. Taylor’s opinion or William’s, my opinion or yours is just an opinion. A judge’s opinion is the law unless successfully appealed.
Councilman Al Litman said the issue won’t go to court. He told readers on “Let’s Talk Mesquite” that appealing Taylor’s opinion is out of the question because of the high cost.
So Taylor’s opinion is going to stand and things are going to change.
But Williams and friends may be disappointed in those changes. Falling under the open meeting law will cost Mesquite Regional Business some time and money, but won’t change how the day-to-day business gets done.
Gaye Stockman, the nonprofit’s CEO, will not be subject to the open meeting law, just the same way City Manager Andy Barton isn’t. Barton meets frequently with the mayor or various councilmen as part of his job but without a quorum of the council present, it’s not a public meeting. What goes on behind those closed doors stays behind those closed doors until it’s brought up at a council meeting.
It will be the same with Stockman. She’ll spend tax dollars as usual, buying printer ink and paper, paying the light bill, conducting tours for clients, traveling to conferences and all the other things that use up that money without the open meeting law ever being involved.
She’ll be able to hold private meetings with Gault without posting a public notice. She’ll be able to meet with the company’s treasurer David Ballweg without any open meeting law requirements. She’ll even be able to meet with Gault and Ballweg at the same time without care for the state law because the organization’s board is made up of five members. Only when three or more meet, will it constitute a public meeting and require all the rules of the open meeting law.
For those full meetings of the five-member Mesquite Regional Business, Inc., a complete agenda with the date, time and place of the meeting, a public comment period, action items (clearly marked as such) will need to be posted in three conspicuous public places at least three working days in advance. Anyone wanting a copy of an agenda will have to be given one no later than when they are provided to the board members and never later than three business days before the meeting.
The meeting will have to be held somewhere public — that training room upstairs in city hall would make a lovely venue that satisfies the legal requirements. And the meetings must be recorded and saved. City hall has that equipment and since the attorney general’s office says the city and Mesquite Regional Business, Inc., are family, maybe the city will let Stockman use its recorders.
Critics of the Mesquite Regional Business aren’t through digging for dirt. The board members will be carefully watched. And if three of them are ever seen together, well that’s a quorum and could lead to accusations of secret meetings.
Since one of the perennial complaints about the board is its all male make-up, the board might consider adding two members. That would mean it would take four to constitute a quorum. One of the new members could and should be a woman. And it wouldn’t be improperly incestuous for the board to include a representative of the city to watch over the city’s treasure.
It will be up to the board to decide when business must be conducted by the full body. Some boards meet twice monthly if business warrants; others just once a month or quarterly.
But I suspect the action at the board meetings, be they held frequently or rarely, will be less than scintillating and will leave board critics still unfulfilled.
The Nevada Open Meeting Law and the entire Nevada Revised Statutes only lay out what is legal. Our body of laws do not address wisdom.
Too bad. At times the tiff has become personal and eclipsed what Mesquite Regional Business was created to accomplish.
And adding the open meeting law much improve things much
The creation of Mesquite Regional Business, Inc., was to benefit the community as a whole. There were those who complained the private sector could never do the job as well as the city. And there were those who claimed the city had failed and it was time for private enterprise to intervene. Neither of these viewpoints can accommodate compromise.
So the internecine squabbling continues.
Yet these are all good people. Too bad they have such a hard time seeing it in each other.