SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage control commissioners repeatedly violated the state's open meeting laws, according to a legislative audit released Thursday.
The audit says the commission wrongly closed meetings to consider who would be awarded one of the state's scarce liquor licenses. The audit also calls for making more liquor licenses available, which would require a change in state law.
The commission chairman is Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Sam Granato, whom the audit faulted for not ensuring annual training on the state's open meetings laws took place. Granato campaign manager Marla Kennedy said Granato was unavailable for comment and referred questions to DABC staff.
Auditors reviewed recordings from 66 closed meeting discussions from January 2009 to April 2010 and found that all but eight of those meetings were inappropriately closed.
The audit says department staff noted that meetings to consider qualifications of liquor license applicants have regularly been closed for 35 years.
"Thus, this practice long predates any of the current commissioners involvement with the DABC," the audit said.
The meetings were closed on advice from the Utah attorney general's office, which cited part of state law that allows for meetings to be closed to discuss the character and professional competence of applicants.
But the audit said while there may have been a few occasions where those matters were discussed, that didn't give commissioners the right to meet behind closed doors to discuss other matters such as how far away from a school or a church a proposed bar was.
"Most closed meeting discussions were not in line with the intent of character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of an individual. We also found that very few discussions involved pending or reasonably imminent litigation," the audit said.
In the agency response, executive director Dennis Kellen defended the practice of closed meetings because no motions were finalized behind closed doors. All votes took place in open meetings.
"In any event, the commission has already changed its procedures to more fully comply with the Open Meetings Act. Any topics unrelated to character and professional competence of individuals that deal with issuance of licenses and permits are now discussed in open session," Kellen wrote.