Open meeting law complaint filed over recent Prescott Council session
Pair say police kept residents from entering chambers on March 26 despite open seats
Updated as of Wednesday, April 10, 2019 9 PM
When upwards of 1,000 people converged on Prescott City Hall on March 26 for a City Council discussion on a “Save the Dells” petition, many people were unable to get seats in the 150-capacity council chambers.
Some say they were kept out of the meeting unfairly — a claim that has led to an Arizona Open Meeting Law complaint to the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office.
City officials say they took steps beyond anything they had done before to ensure that the public would have a way to watch the meeting live. But a number of members of the public say police officers’ refusal to let them into the chambers despite open seats inside violated state law.
The council meeting involved a discussion of the Save the Dells position pushing for the preservation of 500 acres of open space within the residential/resort project proposed near the Point of Rocks in the Granite Dells. Council members ultimately voted against endorsing the resolution, but indicated they would continue to push for more open space preservation in the Dells.
On April 1, Prescott residents Jovita Fine and Barbara Jacobsen filed a letter with the county attorney, claiming the Open Meeting Law “was intentionally violated, as numerous times numerous persons were kept out of the 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.-plus council chambers by two Prescott Police officers in the hall and by the chamber door.”
The county attorney’s office responded to a Courier inquiry this past week, saying the complaint is under review, and that the department had no comment.
Fine and Jacobsen say that even though seats were vacated throughout the meeting, they were not allowed in.
Fine, whose daughter and granddaughter were both speaking during the meeting in support of the Save the Dells effort, said police officers repeatedly rebuffed her appeals to get inside the council chambers. “Every time there were empty seats, I asked, and they said no – right to the end of the meeting,” she said.
Jacobsen had a similar experience. “There were two policemen, and for some reason, they were not letting anyone go in when people were leaving. They would not tell us why, and we knew there were some empty seats.”
Prescott Community Outreach Manager John Heiney said the city issued a news release the week prior to the meeting, alerting the public that the meeting attendance was expected to exceed capacities at City Hall, and that there were other ways to watch the meeting.
“We did everything we could,” Heiney said, pointing out that the overflow crowd was being directed to in the lobby and to the nearby Prescott Public Library, where the meeting was being live-streamed. “Our goal was to keep it safe and minimize incidents,” Heiney added.
In addition to the space at City Hall and the library, Prescott City Clerk Maureen Scott reported later that 215 people were watching the Prescott Media Center’s live stream of the meeting, and 405 more watched the Facebook live broadcast.
City Attorney Jon Paladini said the city opted to have extra police officers at the meeting “to ensure that the meeting ran in an orderly fashion.”
“We did everything within our power, and then some,” Paladini said.
Complicating the seating situation, he said, were the reserved seats for more than a dozen people who were being sworn into office that day for a variety of city boards and commissions. The swearing-in happened at the beginning of the meeting, and the new appointees all left the meeting afterward to sign the required paperwork. But their seats were still reserved, Paladini said, and many of them returned to the meeting after signing the paperwork.
Jacobsen and Fine said they were both interviewed this past week by the county attorney’s office, but had yet to hear back on the results of the investigation.
Paladini said he also spoke with a representative from the county attorney’s office on Friday, April 5. “They’re going to do an inquiry and get back to us,” he said.