Christina Sloan [Moab Sun News file photo]

A Salt Lake City-based legal firm will review a complaint made by Moab resident Lynn Jackson alleging “multiple violations” by the county council, according to Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan.

The firm of Parr, Brown, Gee & Loveless will review Jackson’s allegations that the Grand County Council, “in full coordination and consultation with the county attorney,” violated state and county statute and code related to conflict of interest, ethics, open meetings, and planning and zoning. These violations allegedly occurred as the council began creating new zoning regulations for the overnight lodging industry in Grand County in February.

Jackson is a former county council member and currently the vice-chair of the Grand County Republican Party. Jackson told the Moab Sun News that this complaint has nothing to do with his political position.

“This is all being done as a citizen who feels rules apply to everyone, regardless of who is in power at a given time,” he said.

Jackson said he believes the county council and attorney “decided to ignore existing public notice laws and conflict of interest laws to jam ordinances through at the very end of a process,” and because of his experience as a council member, he “immediately knew something wasn’t right and rules were not being followed.”

Contents of the Complaint

The complaint, provided to the Moab Sun News by Jackson, is dozens of pages long and contains extensive references to county council agendas, financial disclosure statements and other documents.

During the regular Grand County Council meeting on July 16, the council voted on a measure to remove “use by right” from private commercial property owners to build new overnight lodging facilities; the measure failed in a 3-3 tie with council members Evan Clapper, Mary McGann and Terry Morse voting in favor and Rory Paxman, Curtis Wells and Greg Halliday in opposition. Councilmember Jaylyn Hawks was not in attendance.

Jackson’s complaint says that at that same meeting, the council voted unanimously to repeal and replace Grand County Ordinance 462, which required Grand County Council members who had a potential conflict of interest regarding any matter before the council to disclose that conflict and recuse themselves from any further participation or voting on the conflicted issue.

“They significantly modified and relaxed the recusal requirements in the new Ordinance they voted on July 16,” the complaint alleges, going on to say that financial disclosure documents provided for review on Aug. 2 showed that six of the seven council members had financial disclosure information on file with the county.

According to the complaint, three council members—Hawks, Wells and Paxman— identified direct financial ties to the overnight lodging industry in Grand County; while two council members, Morse and McGann, listed financial interests in the rental business; and no financial disclosure document was provided for Councilmember Halliday.

“Under provisions of County Ordinance 462, several council members would have been required to disclose their conflict and then recuse themselves from further participation of voting on the issue with which they had conflict,” Jackson’s complaint alleges, indicating that he believes this was an attempt to allow all Grand County Council members to vote on the overnight lodging ordinance restrictions and “never involved the public as required by law.”

“There was no legal notification to the public that the Conflict of Interest Code was changing for the County, there was no public hearing, and no opportunity for public comments,” the complaint alleges.

The council convened a Special Meeting on July 18 and voted 5-0 to pass an ordinance that removes the right to build nightly rentals in all zoning districts in the county, with a plan for new overnight lodging accommodations to be regulated by a zone overlay specified at a future date.

The complaint alleges that Grand County “violated public notification requirements” related to the meeting.

“Notice of this special meeting was posted on the county’s Agenda Center website on July 17 at 1:52 p.m.,” the complaint alleges. “There is an amended version posted at 9:20 am on July 18 indicating the meeting was canceled. An amended agenda was then posted again to the website at 10:13 a.m., indicating the meeting was going forward on July 18, but there is no business packet included which would include the proposed Zoning Ordinance the Council was to vote on. The agenda was again amended and reposted at 3:09 pm, and the packet was included. This posting occurred approximately an hour after the special meeting was over.”

Council members Paxman and Wells were absent from the meeting, and council member Jaylyn Hawks said she was traveling internationally but called in and participated in the vote by phone.

“Two of the council members who had voted against the planning and zoning ordinance changes on July 16 were not present at the July 18 meeting,” says the Jackson complaint. “One of the council members who had voted against the planning and zoning ordinance changed their vote to support the approval of the overnight lodging zoning ordinance, Halliday.”

Assistant Attorney General Referred Complaint to Grand County Attorney

According to emails provided to the Moab Sun News, Jackson’s complaint was sent to the Utah Attorney General’s Office in early September.

A reply letter sent later that month, signed by Assistant Attorney General Bryan Nalder, stated that the Civil Review Committee (CRC) for the Utah Attorney General’s Office had determined that the complaint should be directed to the Grand County Attorney’s Office. Jackson sent his complaint to the county attorney on Oct. 1.

In an email to the Moab Sun News, Nalder said the CRC looked into Jackson’s allegation that the July 18 meeting was improperly noticed to the public. The committee determined that the meeting had complied with the law.

“Although the notice for the meeting was posted awfully close to the 24 hour requirement,” Nalder said, “it nonetheless complied with OPMA (the Open and Public Meetings Act).”

Nalder wrote that it was determined by the CRC that Jackson’s other allegations “concerned local matters” and thus determined that the complaint should be directed to the Grand County Attorney’s Office, which has “a process in place when receiving complaints that may pose a conflict of interest to their office or the Grand County Council.”

Sloan later said the process was to hire Parr Brown, a firm the county has used previously, to conduct a review of the complaint.

When Nalder was asked by the Moab Sun News how impartiality can be ensured when the outside counsel reviewing the complaint is chosen and paid by the same body that is the subject of the complaint, Nalder replied, “This is a fairly common practice among county attorney offices; other county attorney offices take the same action or forward complaints that may pose conflict of interest to neighboring county attorneys to review.”

Jackson Requests Follow-up

On Nov. 6, Jackson sent an email to Sloan asking for a response to his complaint.

“It has been over a month since this complaint was filed,” Jackson wrote. “This email is requesting a status update on the investigation, and specifically what process your office has initiated to (ensure) a fair and impartial investigation of the allegations in the complaint.”

Jackson copied the Moab Sun News on this correspondence, as well as several others including Nalder and state legislators Carl Albrecht, Christine Watkins and David Hinkins.

Sloan responded the following morning, stating in a reply email that she was sending his complaint to outside counsel for review “for obvious reasons.”

She said that the county was pulling “additional responsive public documents” related to the complaint but, due to the election and budget season, “the Clerk/Auditor and Council Administrator’s offices have not had a chance to finalize that package of documents for outside counsel.”

“Rest assured, your complaint is in our priority queue,” Sloan said to Jackson.

Jackson disputed the need for additional documents to be gathered by the county and said he did not find Sloan’s “failure to act” in response to his complaint in a more timely manner to be “warranted.”

In addition to reporting that the complaint had been referred to Parr, Brown, Gee & Loveless, Sloan told the Moab Sun News that the additional documents she requested included “various meeting agendas and minutes related to internal county review of Ord 593 prior to adoption by Council; additional disclosure forms that Lynn did not include,” as well as proof that ordinance notices were mailed to all affected owners.

Sloan indicated that Jackson’s complaint is considered “informal,” as formal complaints are filed through the Moab District Court or appropriate federal venue. There is no response deadline by law for informal complaints, she said. The county is addressing the complaint “in a timely manner,” Sloan said, but added that she cannot estimate a timeframe for a response since the matter is being handled by outside counsel.

Sloan also said that, while she could not give substantive comments due to the matter being under review, she was confident “there has been no ethical wrongdoing” by herself or council members.

Jackson alleges ‘multiple violations’ of state, county statutes

“This is a fairly common practice among county attorney offices; other county attorney offices take the same action or forward complaints that may pose a conflict of interest to neighboring county attorneys to review.”

– Bryan Nalder, Assistant Attorney General