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What the Devil won't tell you

Throwing a flag: Pima Supes get 15 yards for open-meeting foul-up

Our democracy was lost to us for a few minutes Tuesday morning.

The Boogaloo Bois didn’t take it from us. The Proud Boys didn’t abscond with it. QAnon didn’t take it away.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors yanked it from us, and probably not entirely on purpose but it was gone nonetheless.

For two and a half hours, they met behind closed doors — discussing a range of issues, including County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry’s contract renewal. That's called an "executive session" — elected leaders in Arizona are allowed to get advice on legal matters and review some personnel issues away from public scrutiny.

But they have to tell the public what they are doing and when, and they failed to do that.

That it happened immediately after the five supervisors were given a presentation on the open meeting law by their lawyer makes it all the more perfect and kinda funny in a political-nerd-kind-of way.

I believe the violation was an oversight. Clearly, they messed up, unintentionally. But no, it's not an insignificant thing. Get that look off your face, county communications office.

It's altogether right that we consider it in the hours following what's-his-orange name in the orange face leaving office after attacking our republic.

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When we talk about defending democracy, we need to defend the democracy up the street, too. That starts with defending important safeguards like Arizona's open meeting law.

It’s a big deal because our institutions require light and public scrutiny to make sure they are following the laws and the norms of a free society. Public business must be conducted in public. That's the law. And there are rules to how those public meetings must be carried out.

Do I think Adelita Grijalva, Sharon Bronson, Matt Heinz, Rex Scott and Steve Christy are going to start launch an Anschluss against the people they serve? Of course not.

Light of day

Public business must be conducted in public because control over the public business is a serious power that voters give to elected leaders. That power absolutely can corrupt.

Public business conducted in private is a fast way for that corruption to start.

Closed-door meetings are a great way to start policies that favor friends, attack the the opposition and create secret laws to trap the people so the power of state can just start hauling in whomever they want.

Neutral application of the law, is, in the words of a crazy man, “the whole ball game.”

You want a free society. The law – even zoning or public health rules the county creates – must be evenly applied to everyone and aimed at no individual person or group.

You want a free market? Free markets require the rules that govern business and the public are not private property. They must be a public good. Otherwise those who own the right to make rules will make the rules to benefit them and undermine the competition.

So the government must report to the public at large and must operate in the light of day.

Theory and practice

The supes have long been well aware of this law and have been careful not to break it. I’ve seen supervisors refuse to get on an elevator with two of their colleagues because that would constitute a quorum and any county business they might dish about, would violate the law.

It wasn’t always the case, though.

In 1993, Republicans on the board led by former Supervisor Ed Moore would hold three-member “caucus meetings” in private. There they would discuss the upcoming agenda and decide how they would vote.

This was about the same time they were trying to completely reinvent county government, following Moore’s Trumpian zeal (though I would not compare Big Ed to The Donald much more than that).

The Arizona Legislature is notorious for playing fast and loose with this principle. They have a history of launching legislation that undermines the public’s right to know, using "strike-all" amendments. They've made sure that many of the strictures of the Open Meeting Law don't apply to them.

If I'm a state lawmaker, I can introduce a piece of legislation called the “Good Sense in Typing Bill” about how to properly use QWERTY keys. Then when I can change it with, say, a floor amendment to ban the discussion of Islam in schools and I can do it at 3 a.m., in an overnight session typical immediately before adjourning.

My typing bill was there on the agenda. It got brought up. Then it got changed wholesale to become a completely different bill. Before someone can say “where’s my lawyer,” it’s signed into law.

Hey, the same party has run the Legislature for 54 years because the public doesn’t punish them for these kinds of shenanigans.

Bad Bell weather

When you have one party-rule, democracy can get dodgy.

The Republicans aren’t likely to be in a position to do much about it, so long as they are the party of Q.

The point is, I know this week's move by the supervisors was a basic screw-up and not a malicious attempt to subvert the law. Negotiating an employment contract is fair game for executive session. And the Board of Supervisors did properly include that particular item on their agenda, to potentially be dealt with behind closed doors. They just neglected to actually tell the public that they were going to go do that, before they went and discussed Huckelberry's job and the six other things that they did announce they'd be dealing with.

Most people wouldn't even have noticed. And in a way, that's part of the potential problem here.

I don’t want to harp on them for too many more words. I do want to remind my gentle readers that it’s the public’s job to defend the democratic process.

It’s a screw-up today and tomorrow it’s an oversight. Then as long as no one says anything, maybe just this one time we’ll violate the law. Then they notice it gets easier.

About 10 years ago, the L.A. suburb of Bell, Calif., endured a scandal after city leaders figured out how to pay themselves shocking salaries. The county manager made $1.5 million a year. The city councilmembers were pulling in more than $80,000 a year by naming themselves to cushy city positions they just conjured up in their heads.

It’s a story that involves actual voter fraud in an election that gave them room for this sort of plunder.

The story was uncovered almost by accident when the Los Angeles Times was investigating potential malfeasance in a neighboring town and stumbled on that story.

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The point is, it happened when no one was looking. The largely immigrant and Latino population didn’t pay much attention to the public policy process. The media in L.A. was in no way staffed to cover all the little jurisdictions across Southern California.

The little things matter because the dark side is so seductive and the public can be such a pain in the ass. Do not think that your side is immune from that seduction.

So all I’m saying is, the light is on and we are watching. And so should the people.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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Randy Metcalf/Pima County

Pima County screwed up the Open Meeting Law and it wasn't that big of a deal. It's only the fate of the republic that hangs in the balance.


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