Suggesting that three Mesquite city council members and the mayor established a “walking or serial quorum” in violation of the state open meeting law, local resident and attorney Steven Lisk filed a complaint last week with the Nevada State Attorney General asking for an investigation.
The allegation centers around recent litigation between the City of Mesquite and Mesa View Regional Hospital that arose after the hospital closed its labor and delivery unit last October. The city alleged after the closing that MVRH violated its development agreement contract to provide the service and took the matter to court.
Lisk alleges that city council members George Gault, Sandra Ramaker, Annie Black and Mayor Al Litman were communicating with each other and acting as a walking quorum using Ned Hill, MVRH CEO, as a conduit to reach a settlement outside of court that was favorable to the hospital.
The state open meeting law “forbids ‘walking quorums’ or constructive quorums. Serial communication invites abuse if it is used to accumulate a secret consensus or vote of the members of a public body. Any method of meeting where a quorum of a public body discusses public business, whether gathered physically or electronically, is a violation of the OML.
“A quorum of a public body using serial electronic communication to deliberate toward a decision or to make a decision on any matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power violates the Open Meeting Law. In view of the legislative declaration of intent that all actions of public bodies are to be taken openly, the making of a decision by a mail poll that is not subject to public attendance appears inconsistent with both the spirit and intent of the law.”
In the case of the Mesquite city council, three voting members constitutes a quorum.
In his complaint, Lisk said that a series of emails shows that Hill met with Litman, Black and Gault as a group during the week of March 20 “to discuss strategy, opinions of these council members, and seeking advice on how to proceed.”
Lisk said in his complaint “What is curious is that I did not receive any communication from any member of council to Ned Hill. However, from Mr. Hill’s emails it is evident that such communication was taking place through other means. Meetings were confirmed and apparent strategies were put into motion.”
Even though Lisk admits in his AG complaint that Ramaker was not included in some of the email exchanges or meetings, he says “it appears that Mr. Hill spoke to Ms. Ramaker separately while she was volunteering at the hospital and then took that conversation into his meetings with council members Gault, Black and Mayor Litman. He presumably would have done the reverse as well.”
At the April 2 city council technical review meeting, a precursor to the regular city council meeting, Litman asked that a proposed settlement agreement with MRVH be placed on the next council meeting. Gault moved to approve the request and Ramaker seconded it. All five council members voted in favor.
Lisk alleges in his complaint that “it is evident that certain council members came to an agreement with Ned Hill to drop the lawsuit prior to any official meeting and without involvement of the City Attorney, Bob Sweetin. In fact, the vote itself seemingly had already been made and everyone in town came to realize that Gault, Ramaker and Black, as well as Mayor Litman all supported the settlement agreement and seemingly had voiced this position to Ned Hill, as he was also aware of the vote.”
Hill sent an email to Councilmen Brian Wursten and George Rapson on March 20 asking for private meetings about the agreement. Both men refused and asked that all communications regarding the issue be made with Sweetin since both parties were in litigation.
Hill replied back to Wursten and Rapson saying, “After our meeting this morning was cancelled, I asked Michelle [city administrative assistant] if you’d like to reschedule and have not heard back. I’ve had very productive meetings with council members Black, Ramaker, Gault and the Mayor. I will certainly respect your decision if you’d prefer not to have a two way discussion but I would sincerely request an hour of your time in which I could share information with you and our plans for the near future.”
No meetings between Wursten, Rapson, and Hill ever took place.
When the issue appeared before the council at its April 9 meeting, Gault, Ramaker and Black made comments fully supporting the out-of-court settlement. Wursten and Rapson expressed their disagreement with the settlement.
After lengthy discussions and with much public comment input, it appeared that the council was ready to vote on the settlement agreement with three council members in favor and two against.
Abruptly, Gault requested to adjourn the meeting for five minutes so that all the council members could consult privately with the city attorney. The adjournment in fact, lasted 25 minutes.
Upon returning to the dais, Black said, “I am feeling discouraged to be honest with you. I feel like I went into these negotiations with Mesa View trying to do something good and I don’t think that everything needs to go to court. I think the people can converse and solve a problem. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to the mentality with a lot of people around here and you try to do something good. You try to remedy a situation out of court and then all of a sudden you’re getting investigated by the AG because that’s suspicious. Just says something about our city like if that’s suspicious, that’s sad.”
Gault said “I will like to make a motion and I will preference this motion by supporting a lot of what Annie [Black] said. We entered into this in good faith trying to resolve what we saw as an impasse trying to have an informal negotiation that could be brought back. We were aware of the open meeting law requirements. We made real efforts to stay clear of that conflict. I guess time will tell whether we were successful or not but at this point, I think it’s important that we try to bring some closure and bring things back together and see if we can all get on the same page.
“My motion is to direct staff to stay the course as previously directed on both Senate Bill 63 and the lawsuit. However, I would like to direct the Counsel [Sweetin] to meet with Mesa View attorneys as soon as possible and resolve the issue based on the agreement that was up for discussion tonight.”
Rapson seconded the motion, the vote was unanimously in favor of continuing the lawsuit, and the settlement agreement was off the table. However, the proposed settlement agreement is back on the city council agenda for its May 28 meeting in much the same format as the original.
The Attorney General has approximately 120 days to issue an opinion on its investigation. There are a number of consequences based on potential outcomes of the AG’s actions.