INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. - District officials are hopeful a new location and format to board meetings can help ease issues exposed recently during a confrontational meeting that featured accusations of non-transparent communication between trustees and General Manager Bill Horn.
Last Wednesday's Incline Village General Improvement District board meeting saw bouts of emotional and tense interaction after trustee Jim Hammerel brought up an issue of what he termed "inappropriate communication from the district."
On Feb. 25, Hammerel sent an email to Horn regarding a district matter. When Hammerel eventually received an email response on the same matter from Simonian, Hammerel said he felt "offended" because Horn had blind copied Simonian without Hammerel's knowledge.
"I'm all about transparency ... and I see this as very disingenuous," Hammerel said at last week's meeting. "For a private conversation between Bill and I ... to also be listened to by the chairman, I found that to be very offensive."
In response, Horn said it's been a practice of his since becoming interim general manager in 2001 to keep the board chair - to whom he directly reports - informed of conversations about district matters with trustees.
"It has been my policy to include the chairman ... in communication with another trustee," Horn said. "All five trustees need to know what individual trustees are asking us to do."
To which Hammerel responded: "I have no problem with sharing (that) vision, but it is disingenuous to blind copy the board chair."
Trustee Jim Smith then spoke, saying he was concerned about Horn's email copying practice, asking him, "how long have you done this," and if Horn ever informed Simonian or other trustees about it.
From there, the conversation escalated. Horn turned to Simonian and asked: "Do I need an attorney here today?"
Smith quickly responded: "You have one right there," and pointed to IVGID's legal counsel, Charles S. Zumpft, who was sitting in last week for regular attorney Scott Brooke.
"No," Horn said loudly, before again turning to Simonian and asking, "Do I need my personal attorney here today?"
Amid whispers and grumblings from the audience of roughly 50 residents, Simonian then pounded the gavel and declared the board would take a five-minute recess.
Smith then said, "No, I want him to answer my question."
"This is getting outside of the guidelines of what we should be discussing here," Simonian responded.
After the break, Smith again said he wanted Horn to answer his question, which led to more heated words.
"This has been disruptive, and I'm going to put an end to it right now," Simonian said.
To which Smith responded: "I'm very concerned about transparency here ... about a blind cc program."
At that point, trustee Bill Devine said, "I think Bill has made it clear he will not answer the question," and because of that, the board was better served moving on.
Zumpft later chimed in, calling the situation an "interrogation of staff," and telling Simonian that "you don't have to allow it to continue."
Hammerel again repeated that the blind copy had offended him.
"In my book, that doesn't count as transparency," he said.
In a follow-up phone interview this week, Horn - who apologized to Hammerel at the meeting - said he and Hammerel met afterward to discuss a better method of communication, and both agreed talking on the phone is a good solution.
"It's always been my practice to make that the person I'm directly responsible to know what's going on," Horn said Tuesday. "Every since I came here in 2001, the chairman has always been kept in the loop. And it's never changed."
When asked why he chose to blind copy Simonian on the Feb. 25 email, rather than a regular copy, Horn paused for several seconds before saying, "I cannot recollect why I blind-copied Trustee Hammerel ... I can't remember."
When asked if his practice has been to blind copy in the past, Horn said, "my memory isn't good enough to remember every time whether I did or didn't."
On Wednesday, Hammerel said he was still concerned about the blind copy.
"I don't know if this was one instance or if this is something that's been repeated ... which is why I encourage the board to investigate this," he said.
As for the heated exchange among trustees and Horn, Simonian on Tuesday said while the situation was unfortunate, it can serve as a learning lesson to improve board communication.
"It wasn't serving the board and it wasn't serving the constituents ... the forum wasn't the right place for that type of discussion," Simonian said. "That dialogue ... opened us up, it made us look like we weren't being transparent and that we were unprofessional."
Simonian said he's taking time to speak with the trustees individually with a goal of creating "more cohesion as a board."
"That's the main goal ... to create an environment for safe dialogue and soliciting participation on a more rational level," he said.
Perhaps one way to reach that goal is the new board meeting format, Simonian said, which rolls out next Wednesday at The Chateau.
The meeting starts at 5 p.m. with a social session. During it, light refreshments will be served, and residents will have the opportunity to approach trustees and staff, with an idea of gaining further knowledge of that meeting's agenda items and other district matters. The social hour is expected to become the norm for board meetings in 2013.
"As long as we have attendance, it has the potential to be successful," Simonian said.
The official meeting begins at 6 p.m., also with a tweaked format, in that public comment and agenda items up for vote will be moved closer to the beginning, while board updates and discussions will be moved farther back, a move trustees agreed would be better for public participation.
While Hammerel said he hopes the new format helps, there still is plenty of work to be done.
"I look forward to the point where the board has finally jelled together and has improved communication, not only with each other but with our residents," he said Wednesday. " ... "IVGID's got a serious communication and trust problem, and I think both of those initiatives will help IVGID communicate with residents better and hopefully build stronger trust with our residents."