With a Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors meeting coming up, Superior Court Judge Thomas Fink requested an agenda item, hoping, he said, to make a presentation.
Then, the meeting agenda was published, and Fink’s item wasn’t on it.
“And I don’t understand why. No one’s given me a reason,” he said, addressing the supervisors at their Jan. 17 meeting.
Speaking during the meeting’s call to the public, Fink told the supervisors he’d hoped to hold a discussion, in public, about an issue involving the Superior Court. The agenda item, he said, did not include a vote, and the presentation, he estimated, “probably would have taken five minutes.”
“Not an extensive issue,” he said. “It’s just a presentation of what we’re doing, where we’re going, where we want to go. And it’s asking you to engage with us. And for us to have some dialogue.”
It wasn’t entirely clear why the item was not put on the agenda. But addressing Fink, District 1 Supervisor Manuel Ruiz said it hadn’t been the supervisors’ decision. What’s more, Ruiz said, the agenda item hadn’t been rejected, per se – it was still under review.
“Our staff sent it out to be reviewed by outside counsel. You’re talking about transparency. I want to show you transparency,” Ruiz said. “That’s the reason it didn’t come here. Because outside counsel is looking at it.”
Fink did not immediately return a phone call seeking further comment the following Thursday. Reached that day, Ruiz said county attorneys, along with an outside attorney, were reviewing an administrative order from Fink, which involved a request to create a new Human Resources department within the Superior Court system.
“They went to an outside counsel to review what could or couldn’t be done,” Ruiz said, adding that the item could likely appear on a future agenda.
Both Fink and Ruiz said that outside counsel – the attorney reviewing the judge’s request for a new HR department for the courts – contacted Fink in October. But it’s not entirely clear why Fink’s request warranted review from outside counsel, either. Deputy County Attorney Kimberly Hunley did not immediately respond to a message seeking further explanation.
‘A public forum’
Speaking to the supervisors at the Jan. 17 meeting, Fink noted that he’d continue attempting to get the agenda item placed.
“This could go to litigation. And it could be protracted and expensive and that’s not what I want to happen,” he said. “I’m trying to avoid that.”
Arizona’s Open Meeting Law, a set of state regulations for convenings of local government officials, contains specific parameters regarding what an agenda can and cannot include. The law, however, does not explicitly direct how an item should be placed on an agenda – and what happens if that item does not appear in public discussion.
Another aspect of the Open Meeting Law would bar Fink from discussing ideas – like that of creating a courts-only human resources department – with the supervisors in a private quorum.
“That prohibits me from engaging in discussions collectively, with the three of you as members of the board of supervisors, except at a public forum like this,” Fink added. “And that’s all I wanted to do.”
Responding, Ruiz noted that under the Open Meeting Law, Fink could still speak to the supervisors one-on-one.
“You can meet with us individually,” Ruiz said. “As long as you don’t tell the other members what our discussion was. It doesn’t violate the open meeting law.”
“You and I have met in my office before,” he later added, addressing Fink.
Fink agreed, calling Ruiz’s proposal “an appropriate suggestion.”
Still, Fink insisted there would be benefits to holding discussions publicly.
“Why do it individually or behind closed doors quietly where there’s no transparency or there’s no accountability?” he asked.