Public trust is easy to lose

On the surface, it may seem harmless. Four Mukilteo City Council members, the mayor, the city attorney and a few other city staffers gather at Ivar’s restaurant for a “late night happy hour” after a public hearing Tuesday evening. The city attorney insists she made sure no one brought up city business, which would be a violation of the state open meetings law because a legal quorum of the council was present.

Indeed, if they only discussed summer vacation plans, they didn’t break the law. But alarms should have gone off in every one of their heads before they ever decided to gather outside of a regular, advertised meeting.

Elected officials have a responsibility to represent citizens in an open, fair and objective way. It’s part of the public trust by which they agree to abide. Social gatherings by a majority of any legislative body put that trust in jeopardy — certainly in appearance and potentially in substance. Even if they didn’t discuss the public’s business at Ivar’s, that’s no guarantee it won’t happen next time.

An alarm did go off for City Councilman Kevin Stoltz, who said he left the restaurant when he realized how many council members were there, afraid of getting involved in what could be an improper meeting. Perhaps Stoltz should lead a council workshop on open meetings laws.

It didn’t help appearances that Councilwoman Jennifer Gregerson called the meeting a “debriefing” in a Twitter post. She had been posting comments on the micro-blogging site throughout the evening from a public hearing of the Snohomish County Boundary Review Board, which is dealing with Mukilteo’s plans for an annexation of 11,000 new residents.

We applaud Gregerson for “tweeting” from the hearing — it’s a step forward in government transparency when an official shares her thoughts and observations with the public in real time. But the practice of gathering with other council members after hours is a bigger step away from transparency. “Trust us, we won’t bring up city issues” simply won’t fly.

The state auditor’s office slapped the city of Monroe 10 years ago when four of its council members gathered at a local tavern after regular council meetings. It’s not enough that public officials be fair and objective, Auditor Brian Sonntag said at the time, they also must appear to be.

The public’s trust is hard to earn. It’s very easy to lose.

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