Government-transparency watchdogs would likely have been pleased at Moab City Mayor Emily Niehaus’ first go at conducting a Moab City Council meeting.
Several times during the meeting on Tuesday, she invoked transparency as the reason for doing some things a little bit differently than in the past. But it was the manner in which she recused herself from a certain issue that indicated, in rather dramatic fashion, an intention to do things on the up-and-up.
She left the room.
The issue that had come before the council was a request for right-of-way access for emergency and, temporarily, construction vehicles on a non-motorized path that leads west from 200 East at about 150 South — in order for them to reach a certain property that cannot be reached any way else with the 20 feet of throughway such vehicles require.
Niehaus, wearing her other hat as founder of Community Rebuilds, said her company had a contract on a property to be reached via the path in question. After declaring a conflict of interest and the reason, she rose from her chair and exited the room.
A recusal itself isn’t usually a big deal for government officials who have conflicts. But to completely remove oneself from the discussion or proceeding, “I’ve never seen that before,” said Lisa Church, the city’s communications manager.
Neither had a 15-year veteran of reporting on government entities. “In 15 years, I’ve never heard of that,” said The Times-Independent Editor Greg Knight.
Following Council Member Rani Derasary’s recusal — following Niehaus out the door — on grounds that she was a neighboring resident, the remaining council members approved the easement, but with concerns and strict instructions that the now-dirt pathway not be used for general traffic.
“I hope the surface isn’t paved because of the character of the area,” Council Member Kalen Jones said.
Moab City Zoning Administrator Sommar Johnson assured the council it would not be paved, but would need to have some kind of “all-weather” surface other than dirt, for instance gravel.
“From the city’s point of view, we don’t want it to look like regular access, because that’s not what we want it to be,” Johnson said.
After the vote approving the measure, Derasary and Niehaus were summoned back into the room. Starting from the beginning of the meeting, Niehaus had given several indications that transparency and ethics were among her priorities.
The council traditionally holds a “workshop” prior to official, scheduled meetings. Until Tuesday, the purpose of those workshops had been to review items on that evening’s agenda for a smoother-running meeting later.
But Niehaus said that, prior to becoming mayor when she would attend city council meetings but not workshops, she often felt she had missed something.
Niehaus said she wanted all discussions about officially agendized items to be kept to the official meeting itself, rather than the workshop. Henceforth, she said, workshops will be for council or staff presentations that are expected to last longer than 10 minutes. The topics of those presentations will be noticed to the public, “Just to be transparent and have more engagement with Moab’s citizens,” Niehaus said.
As for the official meeting, Niehaus switched what had become the traditional order of the agenda, which had seen the item “mayor and council reports” placed toward the end of the agenda.
Niehaus had put it as the second business item on the agenda.
“I have found that it’s one of the juicier bits, so I’ve moved it to the beginning,” she said, implying that doing so made those “juicy bits” more accessible to the public who were perhaps interested but didn’t want to wait until the end of an hours-long meeting.