Salt Lake Valley Health Board members discussed water fluoridation last month in an e-mail exchange. And despite officials’ saying it is an important public health issue, don’t ask to see what they talked about.

They won’t show you.

In a possible breach of state open-meetings law, Health Department Executive Director Patti Pavey fired off an e-mail Dec. 17 asking four questions of Health Board members. At least four board members responded with what Pavey initially characterized as “votes.” She later said the e-mails were just an “exchange of information.”

But when The Salt Lake Tribune requested copies of the e-mails, the county whited-out, or redacted, most of the messages. Its reason: The messages dealt with litigation.

“I would [redacted] action,” said an e-mail from Joyce Valdez, a marketing coordinator at Salt Lake Community College.

“I support [redacted] of the recommendations below,” says an e-mail from Cecilia B. Walker, national development director of the American Red Cross.

An e-mail response from Kristen Ries, a doctor at the University of Utah School of Medicine, was nearly blank except for her name.

Not good, say government watchdogs.

Keeping sunshine off the government’s business by discussing policies via e-mail only increases the public’s cynicism and makes people question motives, says Claire Geddes, director of Utah Legislative Watch.

“We’re a government of the people, by the people, for the people. That says it all right there,” Geddes said. “To be making decisions behind closed doors or without people knowing what you’re doing just isn’t the American way.”

Anthony Musci, director of Common Cause of Utah, said, “There’s plenty of reason for the public to be concerned.”

Pavey maintains the e-mails didn’t constitute a meeting and were not inappropriate.

“It was simply an exchange of information,” he (sic) said Monday. “It was not a violation of the Open Meetings Act. . . . I just wanted to get a feeling from the board” for what she should say to the County Council should the need arise.

Assistant District Attorney Craig Anderson says the “exchange” did not meet the definition of a public meeting, because there was no meeting called and no quorum of members present.

Pavey’s e-mail, as provided by her office, was mostly whited-out. But a copy obtained by The Tribune shows that the health director asked whether board members wanted to:

* Ask for a veto of the County Council’s action to exempt two water companies from fluoridation for one year.
* Enter into a lawsuit to determine ultimate authority over health policy.
* Request a legal opinion from the Attorney General’s Office on the authority over health policy.
* Write a letter to the County Council asking that a revote on the fluoride issue in 2004 only come from a petition similar to one used to get fluoride on the ballot in 2000.

Tribune attorney Michael O’Brien says the board broke the law by discussing action over e-mail, and then exacerbated the problem by refusing to say what happened.

“The board’s actions skirt the Open Meetings Act,” O’Brien said. “If the board is going to discuss the public’s business, it should do so in public.”

On Monday, O’Brien sent the county a letter requesting full disclosure of the discussion and a guarantee that board members have never met by e-mail before. He also asked — noting The Tribune would like to avoid litigation — what policies the board has to prevent future violations.