Opinion: Mathews out of line speaking for entire council, city staff
If Michael Mathews correctly has his finger on the pulse of the Cottonwood City Council, the folks complaining about noise at the Municipal Airport have no business trying to fight City Hall.
According to first-term Councilman Mathews, neither his council colleagues nor city staff are “terribly concerned” about airport noise.
Airport noise complaints, Mathews said in an April 1 email to local aviation enthusiast Dale Williams, only represent “a small minority of vocal residents.”
Still though, they’ve made enough of a fuss that Mathews would like to see them shut down. That was the purpose of his email. He was encouraging Williams to get the word out among like-minded residents to show up and tell the City Council that they don’t consider airport noise in Cottonwood obtrusive.
“We could use some residents in the gallery to speak on the other side,” Mathews said. ”Such as we don’t find the noise to be a problem and we understand that traffic will increase and we are OK with it.”
Rallying diverse views on community issues is one thing. Making a blanket statement about collective city council sentiment on such issues is quite another.
Especially when there are those who would dispute Mathews’ claim about council and staff not being “terribly concerned” about airport noise complaints.
City Manager Ron Corbin sees it quite differently: “We care immensely about those matters that are of importance to our community members. We have been working hard on the airport noise issue … The airport noise is a serious issue that is complicated and will take time to work through. My job is to bring them solutions and I plan to do so at some point. We will be hiring a consultant later this year to help us address many aspects of the airport, including noise.”
Ditto for Mayor Tim Elinski: “We are taking noise concerns seriously and exploring our options for mitigation. Staff has been, and will continue to be, responsive. They are working on gathering information now, both internally and with outside consultants, to present to council so we can weigh options and make an informed decision. Given that our airport is federally funded, limiting activity will be difficult, and may not be in the best interest of economic development for our community, but there are ways we can address our citizens’ concerns and we are working towards that goal.”
Vice Mayor Tosca Henry: “I am concerned about the noise, and it is my understanding that we are working to mitigate the amount of student touch-and-go landings, if possible.”
Doing the public’s business behind the public’s back
Further complicating Mathews’ political guffaw in putting words in his council colleagues’ mouths is that he made these claims through a private email account.
Thanks to a couple of shared responses, Mathews’ supposed private email ended up on the City of Cottonwood’s email server and is now an official public record.
He can’t escape his own words. Ditto for his tactics.
What Mathews was attempting to do was communicate the public’s business, in his official capacity as an elected official, behind the public’s back. He took a page directly from the Hillary Clinton playbook of government transparency when communicating public business via private email.
This is a road we’ve been down before in Cottonwood. Last year, the Mingus Union School Board and administration were challenged repeatedly on the practice. It finally took the no-nonsense approach of Acting Superintendent Genie Gee to put an end to it. Gee assigned each member of the school board an official MUHS email account and made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that their electronic communications concerning the school district only be done through official school district email.
When Mingus was challenged on this issue last year, one of Arizona’s foremost public records and open meeting law experts, Phoenix attorney Dan Barr, said having elected officials communicate public business via private email is a practice ripe for abuse
“It does not take a genius to see how people can abuse the public records law and open meeting law with texting and private emails,” said Barr. Further, he said all government bodies are required by law to maintain and store all public records. Having elected officials using private email, or texting on personal phones, and then having an honor system by which the elected officials turn over their private correspondences to the government custodian of records is suspect, and makes it “far more difficult for the public body to perform its public duty of maintaining public records,” said Barr.
A year ago, both Mayor Elinski and Vice Mayor Henry weighed in on the private email issue by saying they believed such communication should be done only through official government email accounts.
“Everything I do as mayor must be subject to OML and open to public. The only way to ensure that is by using my city email account so there is a public record,” said Elinski.
Added Vice Mayor Henry, “As a general rule, I do not write or respond to members of the public from any account other than the city email.”
A year later, when it applies to one of their own, members of the Cottonwood City Council aren’t so quick to make proclamations about taking the high road.
“Regarding using personal email for city business I think that question is best directed to Mathews,” said Elinski.
“I am not able to weigh in on other council members usage of email accounts,” said Henry.
No one else on the council chose to respond to questions about Mathews using private email to communicate city business, or making claims about council’s true feelings about airport noise complaints.
Which can only make those residents who are concerned about this issue question if they have any chance at all in their attempt to fight City Hall.