The Arizona Department of Transportation has asked the Attorney General's
Office to decide whether the South Mountain freeway advisory committee can
close at least one of its meetings to the public.
The committee's members believe a closed setting will promote a freer
exchange of ideas.
"It's not something ADOT is advocating," said Matt Burdick,
spokesman for the agency. "They are expressing a desire to have the
ability to have discussion in a private setting."
The request was made in March because some
members of the South Mountain Citizen Advisory Team have become increasingly
uncomfortable and inhibited by the presence of reporters at the meetings,
The team is expected to vote on a preferred route for the West Valley arm of
the South Mountain (Loop 202) Freeway in May or June.
Any of the upcoming meetings could be closed should the committee's request
The vote's outcome would not determine if the freeway will be built.
It will, however, be among the items ADOT submits in its environmental
impact statement to the federal government.
While ADOT awaits an opinion from Attorney General Terry Goddard, the
decision should be clear, according to some.
"It makes no sense for this advisory group to function in
secrecy," said David J. Bodney, a lawyer with Steptoe & Johnson and
an expert on open meetings law. Bodney, who represents The Arizona
Republic on First Amendment matters, said: "In form and function,
this group operates as a classic advisory committee and therefore its
meetings are subject to the Arizona Open Meeting Law. All persons are
entitled to attend and listen to its deliberations."
But members fear that as discussions become more crucial, those who need to
speak will not.
"Members are more reserved in their comments since the press have been
allowed to come," said Laura Prendergast, a member of the committee who
represents the Laveen Citizens for Responsible Development. "If they
know the press is here, they won't express themselves. We may need to have a
closed-door session so we can hash things out."
Ron Chohamin, a committee meeting and vice president of the Lakewood
Community Association of Ahwatukee, said the intent of opening the meetings
to the public was for the public to observe directly the proceedings.
"It was not particularly meant to be open for journalistic
adventures," he added.
The team was convened by ADOT in 2001 to get regular community feedback
while planning the South Mountain Freeway, a $1 billion project funded by
state and federal dollars.
The South Mountain Citizen Advisory Team is made up of representatives from
a range of groups and municipalities who have an immediate stake in
shepherding the 202 away from or through their respective communities.
Representatives from Tolleson and Avondale are a part of the committee.
People from the Sierra Club, the Ahwatukee Foothills Chamber of Commerce,
United Dairymen of Arizona, the South Mountain Village Planning Committee
and Ahwatukee Foothills Homeowners Association also are among the 24-member
Until 2003, the team members met privately.
An internal review by ADOT staff of state statutes determined the group
could meet privately, Burdick said.
ADOT opened the meetings because of the negative impression closed meetings
made, said Shannon Wilhelmsen, director of communications and community
partnerships for ADOT recently at the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning
The next meeting will be from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 28 at the Komatke
Center on the Gila River Reservation.