Elected town officials conduct most of their business in public meetings but there are certain topics that warrant private discussions, state law stipulates.
The closed-door meetings, known as executive sessions, are private to everyone except the public body hosting the meeting, legal officials and any invited individuals.
In the Town of Paradise Valley, recent Town Council meetings have included executive sessions to discuss the Five Star Development project, their agendas show. However, the recorded minutes and contents of these meetings are not accessible to the public.
In response to a records request for minutes of recent executive sessions, Town Clerk Duncan Miller said he is unable to fulfill the request.
“I am unable to comply with your request,” Mr. Miller said in an email to Independent Newsmedia.
“A.R.S. 38-431.03(B) states that, ‘minutes of, and discussions made at, executive sessions shall be kept confidential’. Executive Session minutes document attorney/client privilege discussions. Disclosure is limited to the Attorney General, County Attorney, and Auditor General, (if requested as part of an investigation) and current Town Council Members.”
Danee Garone, a staff attorney at the Arizona Ombudsman office, says there’s multiple reasons a public body may meet in a closed-door meeting.
“There’s multiple purposes,” Mr. Garone said. “Essentially, it’s for elected officials to discuss legally protected information or discuss other information, the disclosure of which would cause or damage the ability of the government to properly conduct their business.”
Open meeting law states a public body may meet in executive session for one of seven reasons:
Mr. Garone says beyond the seven specified reasons for executive session, all other discussion needs to occur in public.
“In executive session only discussion can happen, any legal action or decision making must occur in public,” Mr. Garone said.
Among various other executive session topics ranging from lawsuit settlements to performance reviews, the Paradise Valley Town Council has agendized discussion on Five Star Development’s project --- the Ritz Carlton Paradise Valley --- seven times since May.
The Ritz-Carlton development --- a more than 100-acre luxury development effort --- is beginning to sprout both its commercial and residential footprint. The Paradise Valley Town Council approved a development agreement with Five Star in January 2016.
The development entitlements granted to Five Star Development for the creation of a Ritz-Carlton Paradise Valley resort community are broken into seven development-area characteristics:
The council’s agendas state their topic on Five Star Development is: Discussion and consultation with the Town Attorney regarding contract negotiations, pending or contemplated litigation, or settlement agreements related to the Five Star Development project as authorized by A.R.S. 38-431.03(A)(4) and/or discussion and consultation with the Town Attorney for legal advice regarding the development agreement and associated agreements with Five Star Development as authorized by A.R.S. 38-431.03 (A)(3).”
While the frequency of Five Star discussions may seem like a lot from the outside, since the development agreement was approved more than three years ago, Mr. Garone says there is no limit to how many times one topic can be discussed.
“As long as you’re following the other requirements of executive session, I don’t see why you couldn’t keep discussing the same topic at every meeting for the rest of time,” he said. “Although, I’m assuming eventually you’ll run out of things to talk about.”
The discussions and minutes of an executive session are kept confidential; however, Town Manager Jill Keimach provided some insight into the recent Five Star discussions.
“The council is working to finalize a number of project details as required in the development agreement,” Ms. Keimach said.
“Some of those details require legal interpretations and legal issues and negotiations are generally handled in executive session. The Five Star project is complex, including with the town’s required participation in the construction of the roads exterior to the project (including improvements to Lincoln, Mockingbird and Indian Bend Drive) and coordination of the underlying infrastructure feeding the project. Five Star’s cooperation with the town is also important with respect to a number of these items. ”
Ms. Keimach says the Five Star project is one of the largest projects in Paradise Valley history, and as such has been the subject of significant review and discussion.
"The town is working diligently to ensure the project is completed in full compliance with the approved development agreement and special use permit for the project, and reflects the best interests of town residents," she said.
A piece of the Ritz-Carlton project includes perimeter roads and public improvements, which the town has agreed to construct. Ms. Keimach says the town is starting construction on these enhancements soon.
“The perimeter road construction to implement the town’s obligation in the development agreement will be coming to council shortly. The town continues to inquire with Five Star representatives that they provide us with any and all updates about the construction of the hotel and other features of the project,” the town manager said.
The 2016 development agreement is being used as a road map for moving forward on the project, and Five Star has not provided staff with any requested amendments to the agreement, Ms. Keimach said.
“The town continues to be committed to providing our residences with all updates relating to town projects, including the Five Star development, as they become available,” she said.