Uproar over email in City of Monticello
by Anna Thayn
Oct 20, 2010 | 3888 views | 0 0 comments | 33 33 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Monticello Mayor Doug Allen and the Monticello City Council spent much of their October 12 meeting  debating recent concerns over the use of email for decisions related to the city.

“I don’t want this kind of controversy. We have allegations that we have done illegal things, that we somehow had done things shady and under the table. I didn’t like the accusations, I didn’t like the innuendo,” commented Allen. 

Two emails ignited the recent controversy, one dealing with approval for payment of bills, and the other polling the council for approval on a plan to cover a shortfall in funding on the airport project. 

Allen asked the members of the City Council to address the policy regarding the way the city pays bills. The bills that were approved by email came during a week when the council meeting had been cancelled.

“We would have gone five weeks without checks being cut. That is unacceptable to our creditors,” said Allen. He expressed concern over late payments, late fees and missed discounts for paying early.  

Allen presented the council with email coorespondance between City Manager Kelly Pehrson and David Church, legal council for the Utah League of Cities and Towns. Pehrson asked Church for a legal opinion on the payment of bills over email.

Church said that there is no law requiring the council to approve the payables that are properly incurred and within the budget, and that approval by email does not violate any laws.

State law requires that the budget officer in the city makes sure the item is within budget, bills be evaluated to ensure they are properly incurred, and sufficient funds should be available to make the payment, but that approval of bills by the council before payment is made is not required by law.

Allen used the process of approval of bills by San Juan County and the San Juan School District as examples of how other agencies deal with approval of payables. City Manager Pehrson said that the city will begin using the purchase card system, that has already been approved, but never implemented by the previous City Manager. 

City Recorder Cindy Holyoak explained the system, which entails the use of a VISA type card for purchases by departments. Holyoak told the council they will still receive a detailed ledger for review, and all purchases will be regulated under the exhisting purchasing policy of the city.

Councilman Scott Frost made a motion to allow the city staff to pay the bills as they are due and within budget, according to city purchasing policy, which includes the use of the P-card, and to have all payables listed and reviewd by the city council inside a public meeting. The council voted unanimously to approve the motion.

However, the email for the approval of bills was only part of the controversy. At a previous council meeting, a motion made to approve payment of two bills failed, due to the means of decision making.

The bills, totaling $26,058.79 were related to the completion of projects at the airport.

Nearly two months ago, City Manager Kelly Pehrson used electronic mail to poll the council for their approval on a plan to use future grant money in order to cover a short fall in funding from the Federal Aviation Administration for the airport construction project.

The plan outlined by Pehrson in the email received the consent of three council members and was placed on the next council agenda for formal approval.  

At that meeting, Councilmen Brad Randall and Craig Leavitt raised concerns over whether email polling of councilmen constitutes a violation of the Utah Open Public Meetings act. The motion to approve payment of the bills failed two to one.

Councilman Leavitt said that he had no concerns with approving bills that are already in the budget over email, but has concerns with amending the budget over email, which is a violation of open meetings law.

City Recorder Holyoak agreed that amending over email is a violation, but said that at no time has the Monticello City budget been amended over email.  There was a great deal of debate over whether or not approval of the airport shortfall expenses are a budgeted item.

Councilman Frost said the council had already given approval for the items in the airport budget, the only change was the source of the funding.   

Mayor Allen said that the item is a budgeted item, as the council approved finishing the airport and approved the budget. “What changed is we didn’t get some funding for it, but the airport was an approved item.”

Allen stated that the council didn’t suddenly decide to throw an additional $100,000 at the airport, “It was in our budget... we just had to scramble to find a way to fund it because some of our funding didn’t come.”

Councilman Randall continually questioned why the council was voting to ratify a decision that had already been made over email.

“It’s not a done deal until we vote on it,” expressed an obviously frustrated Councilman Walter Bird, adding that the results of the email polling are not binding until voted on in an open meeting.  Bird maintained that even though he consented to the plan in the email coorespondance, he was still at liberty to change his mind until a public vote was taken.  

Councilmen Bird and Scott Shakespeare both said that their email consent to the plan was not an approval, but was an agreement to pursue the process, which was then placed on a public meeting agenda for a vote.

“I know what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to sling mud and make us look bad,” said Bird.

“First off, everyone thinks that I’m out here trying to get everybody. It doesn’t matter if it’s an article in the paper, or what’s said in council...” said Randall, who continued to assert that since work moved forward based on the email consent, the decision had been made and ratification of the decision was unnecessary.  He said that since the work is done, there could have been no change made to the decision.  

Councilman Bird said that taking a poll of the council over email is no different than when the council is presented with a non-agenda item and the council agrees to it, knowing it will have to be ratified at a later meeting,

“How is that any different? It’s not,” said Bird, “Everyone sitting at this table has given an affirmative nod in a poll... and then we ratify it later and I don’t see any difference in an email doing that and ratifying it later and doing that in an open meeting.”

Bird pointed out that there was no deliberation or discussion on the issue by councilmen outside of a public meeting, stating that this does not violate the open public meeting law, as the item was placed on an agenda for an open discussion in a public meeting.

Randall said that he did not vote for the item over the internet because it needed to be done in an open meeting.

Bird responded, “So it’s on an agenda, you have your full opportunity to vote the way you want to vote... I don’t see anything illegal with that.”  

With four affirmative votes, the council approved the payment of bills and the use of transportation funds to cover the shortfall, with the intention of paying the transportation fund back in two years with FAA entitlement money. Councilman Randall abstained from the vote.

In other business, City Manager Kelly Pehrson reported on the receipt of a dividend check from Utah Local Governments Trust.  Pehrson said that the check represents an insurance rebate based on a great rating and low risk, thanks to no workman’s compensation claims against the City. 

Pehrson informed the council that a representative from ULGT would be visiting soon to discuss another discount, and the possibility of locking in the city’s insurance rate for up to three years.

The council approved bids related to a grant that was received to make energy efficiency upgrades to the city office.

According to Pehrson, the bids came in higher than the grant budget, leaving the city short $5,000 for the project. Pehrson suggested that they may be able to do some administration of the grant in-house in order to try to save the $5,000, but even if they had to pay it, they would still be receiving a new roof, lighting, electrical and a boiler for a nominal fee.

Pehrson suggested that the unexpected dividend check they received from the insurance rebates, approximately $7,500, could be used to cover the cost. Pehrson observed that it would still be 99 percent grant money and that the city would be lucky to find such a grant in the future.

The council discussed several options, including doing only part of the project at this time and starting the bid process again on the roof, which came in much higher than the original project budget.

In the end, the council approved bids by a vote of 3-2.  The bid for electrical work was awarded to Four Corners Electric for $8,650, the new roof was awarded to Tim Hunt Roofing for $32,000, and SR Mechanical was the low bidder on the boiler at $46,480. Pehrson informed the council that there could be an additional $2,248 in asbestos abatement costs, if necessary.   

The council set aside a decision on the Planned Community Development Ordinance. Councilman Walter Bird suggested the council wait, based on possible changes to Utah law in the next Utah legislative session. The council unanimously approved waiting until next legislative session ends before making a final decision on the ordinance.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
No Comments Yet
The San Juan Record welcomes comments on our stories. Please be civil, respectful, focused and humane. Postings are not edited and are the responsibility of the author. You agree not to post comments that are abusive, threatening or obscene. Postings may be removed at the discretion of sjrnews.com