From today's Lewiston Tribune:
MOSCOW - Downtown businessman Dennis Baird said Thursday he asked for a legal review of circumstances surrounding several city council executive sessions because government secrecy shouldn't be tolerated.
"The results of secrecy in government are almost always awful," said Baird, owner of the Wine Company of Moscow.
Latah County Prosecutor William Thompson Jr. accepted Baird's request and will be reviewing the matter next week. City Attorney Randy Fife, meanwhile, has said the city acted well within Idaho's open meeting law.
The debate swirls around the city council's recent 5-1 decision to provide water and sewer service across the state line for the proposed Hawkins Companies shopping mall. That action stemmed from an initial executive session last year after which the city appealed water rights transfers Hawkins had secured in neighboring Whitman County.
"The process was really terrible; making major substantive decisions on city resources in executive session is simply not a good way to run a government," Baird said.
There was no public discussion prior to the appeals being filed. Nor was there any public input prior to or after another executive session that resulted in a 180-degree turnaround to dismiss the appeals and ultimately offer water and sewer services to Hawkins. What's more, the deal with Hawkins was hammered out during a 22-hour secret mediation session in Spokane.
The city of Moscow issued a release Thursday stating the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board ordered the dismissal of all water rights challenges on Feb. 13 based on the negotiated settlement agreement.
And it's that process leading to the settlement Baird is challenging.
"It stayed awful from day one to day three," Baird said. "The problem is the process, the secrecy. The second part of the process problem was the rush to approve the secret deal. They could have waited another week."
The city had been taking heat since last summer from Whitman County officials who claimed Moscow overstepped its jurisdiction by filing the water rights appeals. The appeals, said the county's three commissioners, unjustifiably held up construction of the mall.
Moscow Mayor Nancy Chaney, who signed the appeals, said they were filed out of concern for the region's groundwater resource. Critics across the border, however, said the legal maneuver was taken mostly to stymie retail development in the Moscow-Pullman corridor.
Baird said he doesn't like the city's decision to extend services across state lines. But he's most concerned about the action stemming from attempts to circumvent Idaho's open meeting law. "There's plenty of blame to pass around," Baird said about city officials who participated, including members of the past and current city councils.
Chaney, Fife and council members said they acted legally. The law allows for executive sessions to "discuss the legal ramifications of and legal options for pending litigation, or controversies not yet being litigated but imminently likely to be litigated."
Baird said litigation usually refers to legal actions taken by others against the city, not actions initiated by the city. "Since the city had filed an administrative appeal in the state of Washington, I suppose that could be called litigation," he said. "But the things they discussed went way beyond anything that was subject to litigation, including committing the city's resources outside the state."