Report: Gillette City Council violated Wyoming open meetings law multiple times over 3 years

An eagle statue outside of City Hall.
An eagle statue stands tall outside of the main entrance of City Hall.

GILLETTE, Wyo.— A recent investigation into alleged misconduct by the Gillette City Council reportedly found that they repeatedly violated Wyoming open meeting laws over three years.

The investigation, carried out in the form of a third-party review by Attorney’s Michael O’Donnell and Donna Murray approved by the council in January 2022 after Louise Carter-King stepped down as mayor following the public release of controversial text messages, was intended to identify instances of misconduct by members of the council and provide suggestions for how they could improve.

Results for that investigation were announced by the City on March 30 and were released to the public, in accordance with promises made after the review was approved. In their findings, O’Donnell and Murray reportedly identified a pattern of behavior where the council regularly abused executive sessions by discussing public business out of the public eye.

“In fact, City Council was not only conducting improper executive session during regularly scheduled public meetings, but also during very questionable ‘pre-meetings’ to public meetings, ‘dinners’ preceding pre-meetings and special meetings,” the attorneys wrote.

During these meetings, members of the council reportedly discussed the Madison water project, softball fields, concessions, hiring of services to find and hire a new city administrator, taxation possibilities for economic development, fire department funding, among other things, according to the report.

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Additionally, during the years reviewed, the council repeatedly held meetings in odd places that were difficult for the public to attend or feel welcome such as the third-floor conference room at City Hall that did not provide sufficient space for public attendance, the attorneys wrote.

The use of personal electronic devices by members of the council to discuss public business was also called into question in the report, which O’Donnell and Murray state is not wrong so long as officials understand the data on those devices is public record and is subject to a public records request, which was not the case when they asked council members for access.

“When [the attorneys] asked for council members to provide access to their emails and texts on personal electronic devices, most Council members were cooperative recognizing that the data was the proper subject of a public records request,” O’Donnell and Murray wrote. “Unfortunately, more than one member of the council did not provide such access and only provided [snapshots] of select texts and emails on their device.”

Exactly which councilmembers failed to abide by the request was not specified in the report, which stated that the authors strove to “avoid attributing specific instances of conduct to an individual which have the potential of causing embarrassment or other consequences to that individual.”

While conducting interviews among city staff, O’Donnell and Murray listened to even more allegations that said members of the council were exhibiting improper conduct toward city employees. The attorneys were also notified that, at times, staff felt pressured to arrive at a particular result to advance the financial or other interests of the elected official.

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“The existence of these allegations raises serious concerns which should be addressed,” O’Donnell and Murray wrote, though they declined to pursue the issues further, stating in their findings that determining the veracity of these allegations was not within the scope of the review.

The review was concluded by a list of recommendations, listed below, nearly every one of which has already been implemented by the council.

“We recognize that [City Council] has gone through a recent period which has damaged public trust,” Gillette Mayor Eric Hanson said in a public statement. “We’ve made a lot of big changes over the last few months and look forward to moving ahead while continuing to rebuild that sense of trust with our community.”

A full copy of the report is available for viewing on the city’s website.

Recommendations

  1. The City of Gillette should eliminate use of Council dinners, governing body pre-meetings and other meetings of a quorum of Council which are not properly noticed to the citizens of Gillette and for which attendance by the public is not robustly encouraged. 9
  2. The City of Gillette should severely restrict use of executive sessions during public meetings to those topics specifically identified by statute.
  3. Notice of a special meeting of the governing body should be properly provided any time a quorum of Council will be gathered in any context where City business will be discussed. This includes group emails and/or texts involving a quorum of the governing body.
  4. Meetings of the governing body should be at locations that are easily accessible by members of the public and at which sufficient room exists for members of the public to attend and feel welcome. In an electronic context, this means that the electronic platform used should be readily accessible to, and useable by, the public.
  5. All elected and appointed officials should attempt to restrict electronic communication to city-issued electronic devices. Absent use of city-issued devices, officials need to recognize that the data held on their personal electronic devices is subject to public record requests.
  6. Elected and appointed officials should always be mindful that they are the servants of the public. All interpersonal interactions, whether occurring electronically or in person should be conducted with that principle in mind. Civility and respect should always be the bywords of conduct for these officials.