Sun Valley Mayor Dewayne Briscoe still wants an outside law firm to look into a potential conflict-of-interest issue with Councilwoman Michelle Griffith, citing concerns that City Attorney Adam King is “not impartial.”
Following citizen Jim Bronson’s public comment at a Thursday, Jan. 29, City Council meeting, Briscoe contracted with and promptly received a request from Boise attorney Clayton Gill to continue his research.
Bronson said there is a question as to whether Griffith should have voted on the overall city budget because her husband, Harry Griffith, is the executive director of Sun Valley Economic Development, an organization that is allocated funding annually from the city.
Gill’s firm, Moffatt, Thomas, Barrett, Rock and Fields, has served Sun Valley on a contractual basis over the past several years, on matters related to employment law and specifically lawsuits involving former City Administrator Sharon Hammer and her husband, attorney Jim Donoval.
At a Feb. 5 City Council meeting, attorney Jim Laski spoke during the public comment period and questioned the mayor’s choice to conduct the analysis, especially with an out-of-town law firm.
“I was pretty alarmed, as an attorney with a fairly decent background in municipal law, at the goings-on at the [Jan. 29] meeting,” he said.
Laski cited Idaho Code pertaining to the appointment of attorneys by the city, duties of the city attorney, the mayor’s powers and the passage of resolutions to contract with outside law firms.
“Some people might conclude that the engagement of Moffatt Thomas to review a conflict-of-interest matter without the consent of the City Council is beyond the powers of the mayor,” he said.
Former Sun Valley Mayor Dave Wilson said it was “disgusting” to read in the newspaper that the city was “demeaning” city employees by contracting work out.
Councilman Peter Hendricks said he couldn’t find Briscoe’s contract with Moffatt Thomas and formally asked for a copy of the contract.
He said, after a year of increasing transparency, councilors are now in a “black hole,” and alleged that the mayor is controlling their interactions with city staff and King.
Tension has been building
The issue stems from Griffith and Hendricks blocking the nominations of two council nominees to fill the seat vacated by Franz Suhadolnik in late September 2014, Briscoe said, which put any and all potential conflict-of-interest issues front and center. Candidates Jake Provonsha and Chris Thiessen were turned down because of their roles in land-use planning for Sun Valley, Hendricks and Griffith said.
Griffith has been a councilwoman since 2012. Upon taking office, she claims she consulted with King regarding the potential conflict with her husband’s organization and her voting status. Griffith said King advised her to recuse herself from line-item discussions during the budgetary proceedings which related to Sun Valley Economic Development, returning to the room to vote on the overall budgetary appropriations.
Following comments made by Bronson, Griffith asserted that she followed Idaho statute by disclosing the connection she had with the organization and seeking advice from King. Under Idaho Code 50-704, public officials may “seek legal advice from the attorney representing that government entity” as to how to best handle the possible conflict.
The city has its own code for elected officials: Conflicts of interest require the person in question to identify the potential breach and recuse themselves from the matter in terms of voting and discussion.
City attorney’s advice
Both Saks and new Councilwoman Jane Conard—who ultimately took Suhadolnik’s former seat—said that reasonable lawyers can differ, and the advice King purportedly gave in 2012 can still be open to interpretation—although that does not negate Griffith’s adherence to code.
“If [she] relied on legal advice, then I can understand why she acted as she did, but I don’t know what legal advice was given,” Conard said in a phone interview. “She obviously thinks she was acting in good faith.”
Briscoe claimed in an email to the Idaho Mountain Express that he only learned of King’s 2012 advice to Griffith upon reading the Wednesday, Feb. 4, newspaper.
“Had he revealed this at the council meeting, as he was present, or the next morning, I would not have started an analysis with Moffatt Thomas,” Briscoe wrote in a Friday, Feb. 6, email.
Because Briscoe claims King sat on the information for a month, he said he believes it prudent to proceed with an outside legal opinion, a position reiterated by Saks.
“I have had significant differences of legal opinion in recent times as to Adam King,” Saks said. “I am uncertain of his independence and objectivity in several matters over the last few months.”
King countered that he made several attempts to tell Briscoe, but was prohibited from doing so. Furthermore, he said the mayor and councilors could have raised their concerns with Griffith voting on the overall budget at the time, and not several months later.
Griffith claimed in her email that King would’ve corroborated her story, had he been sitting as legal counsel at the Jan. 29 meeting. Briscoe had told King he was not needed at that meeting, he said, because it was a special meeting called for the purpose of voting on Conard’s nomination to the empty council seat and only select staff needed to stay into the evening.
Upon Bronson’s Jan. 29 exploration into the nuances of both Sun Valley and Idaho ethical codes, Briscoe authorized what he calls an “analysis” into Griffith’s voting history by contacting Gill on Friday, Jan. 30.
Briscoe said he was in compliance with Idaho Code 50-602 when he independently sought out Gill’s expertise. The code states that in having “superintending control of all the officers and affairs of the city,” the mayor ensures that “the ordinances of the city and provisions of this act are complied with and enforced.”
Council and mayor argument
At the end of the Feb. 5 meeting, Hendricks asked to go into executive session and his request was denied on the grounds of transparency, as the mayor said the public needed to be noticed. Despite not adding it to the agenda, the final 45 minutes of the meeting were spent arguing points related to Gill’s contract and the situation at-large.
Hendricks said Briscoe was incurring charges to the city in an autocratic manner, and was keeping citizens in the dark.
He accused the mayor of playing games, when Briscoe suggested putting the matter on the Monday, Feb. 9, agenda, since Hendricks was unable to attend that meeting.
“That’s out of order, sir!” Briscoe responded.
Griffith reiterated Hendricks’ concern, when Briscoe said he’s been contracting with the Boise firm regarding the Hammer-Donoval lawsuits for the past several years and this was nothing new.
“I sat in on every one of those executive sessions when you wanted to hire outside counsel, whether it was Keith Roark, or whether it was Kirt Naylor or whether it was Moffatt Thomas,” Griffith said. “You came to the council and you got approval from the council.”
Briscoe said that Griffith’s and Hendricks’ accusations of his improper actions were a clever public-relations tactic to draw attention away from the conflict-of-interest matter.
Briscoe argued that the request for analysis fell under “miscellaneous legal business,” which he as mayor is entitled to contract on his own. Gill submitted two fee agreements for service following his analysis, one for a continuation of “miscellaneous legal business matters relating to the operations of the city of Sun Valley” and one “regarding its conflict of interest policies and practices as it pertains to the mayor and the City Council to ensure compliance with Idaho Code section 50-704.”
The agreement says Gill charges $275 per hour.
Saks is in favor of a neutral party analyzing the situation, he said, without any punitive measures taken.
“All we’re trying to do, in my opinion, going forward, is know what the guidelines are, know what the interpretations are, so we never have to have these kinds of discussions again,” he said.
Griffith, in a follow-up email to the Idaho Mountain Express, said the city’s contract with Moffatt Thomas was “very specific” to a previous forensic audit and said she’s not in favor of spending “taxpayer dollars on an expensive Boise firm to enhance a policy manual.”
Griffith added that if the city wishes to adopt a more restrictive policy regarding potential conflicts of interest, they could pursue the change together, although politicians who are a member of the Sun Valley Marketing Alliance would be called into question, as would those in a business relationship with Sun Valley Co.
At the Monday meeting, Briscoe said he would defer the matter to the Thursday, March 5, regular council meeting.