Provo Municipal Council members abruptly ended the public meeting Tuesday as they moved to an emergency executive session, after the cutting off of public comments led to talk of litigation against the council.
A few events led to the unprecedented secession where the council members left the public chambers. Council member Steve Turley was publicly accused of criminal activity during the open-comments portion of the meeting. Additionally, many attendees stood before the council to protest an ordinance affecting how much of a property can be paved instead of landscaped for backyard parking. The high volume of public comments and high level of animosity against Turley led to the violation of expected decorum at the council meeting.
“I’ve never seen this in years,” said Taylor Oldroyd, CEO of Utah County Association of Realtors. “What was demonstrated tonight is a perfect example of how to not conduct public policy.”
Turley, a Provo City council member for seven and a half years, is under investigation by the Utah County Attorney’s office. The investigation began as a group of concerned Provo residents, who compiled concerns and complaints against Turley. In November 2010, they formally submitted a request to Mayor John Curtis to have Turley removed from office.
“We have painstakingly gathered volumes of evidence that we believe clearly and convincingly shows that Steve Turley grossly and purposely misused his public office for personal benefit,” said Diane Christensen, a spokeswoman for the concerned residents. “Further, we believe that Mr. Turley has engaged in this unscrupulous pattern of conduct for many years.”
Although Christensen said there were many reasons why Turley should be removed from office, she said her biggest reason would be his lobbying for a reclamation project at the mouth of Slate Canyon.
The proposal would have been a gravel pit, opponents say.
“He would receive royalties,” Christensen said. “It would be a five- to 10-year operation with gravel processed on-site. The trucks would drive on our streets.”
At the council meeting held Tuesday, Christensen voiced her concerns during the 15-minute public open-mic, after slamming binders full of documents supporting her claim on the podium. She was one of many who were allowed three minutes to address the council members and the mayor. Although Christensen kept her comments to three minutes, many citizens wished to address the council regarding the investigation as well as another popular topic, the repaving ordinance affecting homes in the Joaquin area. Some citizens said they were upset when council chairman Rick Healey abruptly ended public comments.
“Rick closed public comment with no vote from the rest of the council. He’s never done that in the past,” said Melanie McCoard, a Provo resident in attendance at the meeting. “He just didn’t want to hear anymore.
“He’s already told people he’s against it,” she said, referring to the public comments about modifying the paving ordinance.
“The comments that were going to be made we had been hearing,” Council Chair Healey said. “That’s why I asked the question if we were going to hear anything different.”
After Healey cut off further public comments without approval from the other council members, McCoard stood up out of her chair and marched past the public microphone to the stand where Healey was sitting.
McCoard leaned over the stand and said, “Before you close public comment you may want to talk to your attorney because it may open you up to a litigation.”
Turley leaned into his microphone and called that the meeting be immediately stopped and an emergency executive session be held without public attendance. According to law, the council can only leave the public audience in a few circumstances, one being that the council is threatened with litigation. The meeting was halted by Healey and all but two of the council members moved to a private location. The statement made by McCoard was later clarified as a suggestion and not a threat of a lawsuit.
“When you’re on the losing side, you don’t make threats,” said Oldroyd, who admitted to having opposing viewpoints to McCoard.
McCoard said she thought the council’s secession was Turley’s idea of avoiding a longer public attack on his investigation. “Steve Turley’s motion to move into executive session is a diversionary tactic away from the claims against him,” she said.
When the council returned to the public chambers Healey informed those in attendance that they had actually not reconvened as a council, but recognized the unorthodox recess as improper. He further explained that the reason he halted public comment was because the comments had exceeded 15 minutes and for no other reason.
Curtis simply said of the contention between public and council, “There have been two types of dialog in this debate. One has been productive, and the other has not.”
“There is a lot of emotion on all sides,” said council member Sherrie Hall Everett. “How do we figure out how to stop the us-against-them? Was this agenda-driven, or was this value-driven? It will be a tough discussion with the election coming up.”