BENSON — The Benson City Council has received notice it violated Arizona open meeting law during a meeting this summer.
At the conclusion of the Benson City Council meeting on July 22, Mayor Toney King opened a call to the public and announced Tricia Gerrodette’s name. He was barley able to call her name before Councilmember Joe Konrad made a motion to adjourn the meeting. All council members voted in favor of adjournment.
Gerrodette had started to rise from her seat, but never got the chance to speak to the council. She sat for a few seconds in disbelief and said it did not register immediately what had happened, until Konrad walked by her on his way out.
At almost every meeting of a public body, the community is invited to comment on an issue important to them. This call to the public offers people the opportunity to speak on issues not addressed on meeting agendas.
The Arizona Statute governing call to the public states, “A public body may make an open call to the public during a public meeting.” The word “may” leaves it up to the governing body, like a city council, to offer Call to the Public or not.
A call to the public was noticed for the July 22 meeting. The agenda stated, “Communications and comments from the citizens regarding the City of Benson or other matters properly addressed to the City Council shall be heard by the council.”
Gerrodette was surprised by the turn of events.
“I was actually quite stunned,” she said. “That has never happened to me before. And, I was speechless. It was pretty rude.”
After a review of the meeting recording, Katherine Jessen with the Attorney General’s Open Meeting Law Enforcement Team (OMLET) sent a letter on Aug. 27 to the mayor and city council, which stated she determined they violated Open Meeting Law.
“Once a public body permits a call to the public, it creates a limited public forum,” she noted. “By adjourning the public meeting before conducting the duly noticed call to the public, the council prevented a member of the public from speaking.”
“Having weighed the factors, and in order to resolve this matter, the Attorney General’s Office requires the council acknowledge this letter’s conclusion at a duly noticed council meeting,” Jessen continued, “This office has noted this occurrence as a violation.”
Two other members of the public were present at the July meeting and gave their accounts to the Herald/Review.
“I was angered by their actions,” said Joanne Hageman. “The following council meeting, Pam Sanor and I were told by Councilman (Larry) Dempster that they could not offer Call to the Public due to a suit by the Attorney General.”
Hageman said she reached out to Jessen to ask if what she was told was true, but received an email stating her office would not be able to comment at the time.
Susan Phelps and several of her friends also attend most council meetings.
“We were all shocked at the way the call to the public was handled that day,” Phelps recalled. “It happened so quickly and was so obviously planned ahead of time that we all just gasped. I was angry, as I’m sure were the others, that Ms. Gerrodette was not allowed to speak when she had signed up to do so.
“This was an obvious attempt to quiet her since not long before this meeting CNN and Rachel Maddow had discussed Villages at Vigneto and the possible corruption high up in the Trump administration in regard to it.”
Phelps sent a letter to the mayor and the city manager and told them her concerns. She said she has not received a reply.
At the next council meeting, those who attended found no call to the public on the agenda, she added.
Though the Herald/Review contacted the city Thursday morning to request an interview with the mayor, there was no response by press time.