‘Tweets’ bring possibly illegal meeting to light

MUKILTEO — A Twitter post from a Mukilteo councilwoman is raising questions about how the city conducts its business.

Jennifer Gregerson, 31, sent a brief message — called a “tweet” — Tuesday night after a four-hour hearing about Mukilteo’s controversial annexation proposal.

“City staff and some council now Debriefing and relaxing at ivars for late night happy hour. Time for dinner, I think!” wrote Gregerson, who used the microblogging service to send 28 updates or tweets during the hearing.

Without knowing about Gregerson’s tweet, Councilman Kevin Stoltz arrived at Ivar’s in Mukilteo after the hearing. He said he was shocked to see Mayor Joe Marine and four members of the city council sitting at the same table with food and drinks.

That many council members in one place constitutes a quorum.

Afraid of getting involved in what could be an improper council meeting, Stoltz immediately left.

The state’s Open Meetings Act forbids elected officials from discussing official business that is likely to come before the elected body if there is a quorum and if the meeting wasn’t properly advertised to the public, said Tim Ford, open government ombudsman for the state Attorney General’s office.

“If it is a discussion that involves the public’s business, it should be done in a noticed meeting,” Ford said Wednesday.

It is not illegal for public officials to gather as long as they don’t talk official business, Ford said.

Despite her tweet saying they were “debriefing,” Gregerson said the group instead only socialized. She said that she sent her tweet on her way to Ivar’s and didn’t even know that a majority of the seven-member council would be present.

Also at the table at Ivar’s were several city staffers and city attorney Angela Belbeck.

“It was strictly social,” Belbeck said. “It was about what we were doing this summer. There was no city business whatsoever.”

Indeed, Belbeck said she directed the four councilmembers to split up when they sat down, with no more than two seated together at opposite ends of the table.

“I was totally on top of it. I was very careful to make sure nothing transpired related to city business,” she said.

Still, Stoltz and others believe it would have been easy for the friendly dinner to become an accidental violation of state public meetings law. That could carry a fine of up to $100 per council participant.

Tuesday’s hearing actually was held before the Snohomish County Boundary Review Board in Everett. The board is expected to announce later this month if Mukilteo can continue its plans to annex 11,000 residents south of city limits.

The city posted notice that a majority of the council would be at the hearing.

When the hearing ended later in the evening, Marine, Gregerson, council president Randy Lord and councilwomen Linda Grafer and Emily Vanderwielen went to the restaurant.

Stoltz, who had been at the hearing, too, didn’t know the others were gathering at Ivar’s.

As word trickled out Wednesday about Gregerson’s Twitter post, she put up a flurry of new messages.

Within minutes of speaking with a reporter, Gregerson posted this tweet:

“since there were 4 councilmembers last night at Ivars, I’m glad we kept things social! small town life, only 1 late night happy hour spot :),” she wrote.

She also created a new, separate Twitter account specifically for city council updates.

It was Gregerson’s tweet about “debriefing” that worried Stoltz more than the gathering itself, he said.

It raised the possibility that council members could be deciding issues outside of public view, Stoltz said.

Stoltz said he believes the city attorney would have kept things in line, and he also believes council president Lord, who told Stoltz that nothing improper happened.

Nevertheless, the incident is troubling, he said.

“I am kind of flustered over the whole thing. I believe Angela, I believe Randy, but I find it very surprising that the group would set themselves up for that perception,” Stoltz said. “And the Twitter thing? That just should not have happened.”

“People are saying, ‘That’s in writing! Why should we believe anything else?’ ” he said.

Chris Fyall: 425-339-3447, cfyall@heraldnet.com.

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