It was business as usual on Thursday in Utah. Liquor-control commissioners attempted to hold a closed meeting: the ostensible purpose of which was to discuss acting liquor-control director Francine Giani, and so arguably the meeting was not required to be held open to the assembled press (both the Salt Lake Tribune and KTVX Channel 4 were there and would have preferred to cover the meeting). Depending on what you determine the purpose of the meeting to be, open meeting requirements in this case are a bit of a grey area.
A little background: tensions have been brewing between the commission and Director Giani, who Liquor Control feels is acting as a liaison to Governor Gary Herbert and thereby undercutting citizen supervision by the commissioners. Come down on that one wherever you like, the meeting - much like virtually every government meeting in this or any universe - should have been open, in my opinion.
What happened next is quite amusing. Dawn House for the Tribune writes:
[Director] Giani voiced concerns about the inappropriateness of excluding the public from the discussion. Commissioners closed the meeting on a unanimous vote, saying it involved a personnel matter.
But microphones were left on, allowing the sound to be piped into the public meeting area after the board had reassembled in an adjoining room. [emphasis mine]
Privately, commissioners told Giani of their dissatisfaction with her reporting to Gov. Gary Herbert, who in effect has been running the department, rather than the citizen liquor board.
Giani shot back that she has given commissioners more information than former executive director Dennis Kellen ever had, according to notes compiled by The Tribune of the discussion.
Liquor-control commission chairman Richard Sperry told Giani that she must also report to the board “so we can govern.
Giani retorted that the board had governed in the past “by whatever Kellen told you.”
The governor had asked Kellen to step down in July after it was disclosed that the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control had done more than $456,000 worth of business with a company owned by Kellen’s son. Herbert called the transactions in the state-run liquor system potentially “serious violations” of state procurement law. An audit of the arrangement is expected to be released in October.
Media attorney Jeff Hunt said agencies may close meetings to discuss the character or competence of an individual, but discussing who Giani reports to is a policy question not covered under the statute.
Legislative auditors have also criticized the board for conducting closed meetings. Last year, auditors said commissioners — relying on advice from the Attorney General’s Office — repeatedly violated the state’s open-meetings laws.