Everett council’s closed-door meetings called into question

EVERETT — City Councilman Mark Olson wanted to do his homework before voting in June for a $1.5 million project to turn a former bank into a workspace for a children’s theater.

So he did what he’s often done: He asked city staff to dig up records of past closed-door Everett City Council discussions on the matter.

That’s when he said he learned city staff had stopped taking detailed notes during executive sessions.

Now he’s calling for an explanation as to why the city took that action without telling — much less consulting — the council.

He said the city is taking “a defensive government posture.”

“It’s always easier to have tough discussions in private rather than public, but it’s not always the best way to conduct the people’s business,” Olson said.

The city stopped taking detailed records of closed-door sessions on Feb. 4, city spokeswoman Kate Reardon said.

The City Council is aware of Olson’s concerns and city staff say they are looking into the matter. None of those involved with making the decision to stop documenting closed session was available to comment Friday, Reardon said.

City councils are supposed to conduct the people’s business in public. State law allows for a few specific exceptions when city leaders can take conversations behind closed-doors for an executive session, such as setting the price of real estate, discussing litigation or for personnel matters.

The city isn’t required to keep records of what happens during these closed-door talks.

Olson said it’s prudent to do so anyway because it allows city leaders to understand why certain decisions were made.

“We just rely on memories, and memories are a poor way to track issues,” he said.

Open government advocates would like to see agencies keep audio recordings of closed-door sessions for another reason.

Doing so would provide a check on elected officials who might let private talks stray into topics that ought to be hashed out in public.

The state auditor and attorney general offices jointly sponsored a bill in the Legislature that would have required city councils and other government agencies to audiotape closed-door sessions. Those tapes wouldn’t be open to public disclosure unless there was cause to believe the law had been violated.

Then a judge could review those tapes in private, and if the judge agreed, those portions of the secret session could be made public.

That bill didn’t go anywhere, said Tim Ford, an open government ombudsman with the state attorney general’s office.

“It was incredibly unpopular with local governments,” he said.

Government officials argued it would cost too much to record meetings and they couldn’t adequately secure the recordings, said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which supported the measure.

“If you talk to them in side conservations, they’ll say it chills discussion to have it recorded,” he said. “But that’s the whole point. The executive session is for certain, very limited purposes. All other discussions are supposed to happen in public.”

Now city leaders across the state are faced with a conundrum. Those records are helpful for elected officials but they are also subject to disclosure, Ford said. That means information best kept private — such as how much money the city wants to spend on property — could be released if someone asks for it.

For that reason, many cities are deciding not to keep any notes about what happens in closed-door meetings at all, said Pam James, a legal consultant Municipal Research and Service Center of Washington, an organization that advises cities on how to follow the state’s Open Meeting Act.

She said her organization tells cities that they don’t have to keep notes of executive sessions but lets them decide.

In Everett, the city’s legal staff said they’d address the matter soon, perhaps at this Wednesday’s evening meeting, Councilman Drew Nielsen said.

“I think he’s got a good point,” Nielsen said of his fellow councilman’s complaint. “In the absence of any more detailed notes or minutes, it’s just everybody’s recollections about what points were made.”

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197, dsmith@heraldnet.com.

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