Are Everett’s secluded meetings legal?

EVERETT — City leaders were considering the purchase of some property in south Everett last year for a park.

Nearly 8 acres on the south end of Broadway were up for sale with a price tag of around $8 million.

Never heard about it?

That’s because it was discussed only in a meeting that wasn’t advertised to the public.

People are angry about access to council meetings after city leaders abruptly decided earlier this month to move meetings to mornings. Meanwhile, seven City Council committees meet a dozen times every month without public notice — a longtime practice the state attorney general’s office says could be illegal.

The city wasn’t ready Thursday to discuss its committee meeting practices, Everett spokeswoman Kate Reardon said. All the city’s attorneys were either in meetings or out of the office and unavailable for comment, she said, but added officials would be looking into the situation.

“We’re checking on the status of them,” she said.

The committees are made up of three council members each, just one member shy of a city council quorum. They hash out issues before bringing them to the full council, such as whether the city can afford to remodel the pool or whether the city wants to buy land.

The focus and number of the committees change from year-to-year. Right now, there are committees for the budget; engineering and public works; real estate; governmental affairs; transportation; public safety; and riverfront and special development projects.

It’s an efficient way to get business done. It’s so efficient that people at City Council meetings have sometimes criticized councilmembers for appearing to have arrived at decisions before they’ve been fully aired in public.

Theoretically, the council’s committee meetings are open to the public. But just try to find one.

Everett doesn’t publish on its Web site where and when these committees meet. The agendas, when they exist, are available only by request. People must hunt down the right city staff.

Most of the committees meet in out-of-the way places. The budget committee, for instance, meets in the mayor’s conference room. The real estate committee meets at 8 a.m. in a council conference room that’s only accessible if a staff member is around to buzz visitors through a locked door.

Bob Overstreet, who served on the council from 1977 to 2007, said that’s how Everett has operated for years. It’s an efficient way to conduct the public’s business but not necessarily a transparent one.

“I think they should be more open,” he said.

Compare Everett’s practices to what the cities of Olympia, Bellingham and Seattle do: All provide clear information about the time and place for committee meetings on city Web sites. These cities also provide links to committee agendas and meeting minutes.

Everett’s committee meeting practices could be illegal, depending on what’s happening in the meetings, said Tim Ford, an assistant state attorney general who serves as Washington’s open government ombudsman.

Any committee that acts on behalf of the council by making “actual or de facto” decisions is subject to the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, he said. A majority of the council doesn’t have to be present for the meeting to be subject to the act, which mandates opportunities for public access with few exceptions.

“The question is does it (the committee) act on behalf of the governing body,” he said.

Committees that act simply in an advisory role are exempt. However, it’s easy for a government committee to cross that line.

“It’s an often misunderstood issue,” Ford said. “There’s no training manual or guidance.”

It’s good practice for the city to make such meetings open to the public, he said.

“I think they should as a matter of good government,” Ford said.

In Everett, it’s hard to know what’s going on since committee meeting minutes aren’t routinely kept.

Most of it is mundane stuff, Councilman Drew Nielsen said. He still thinks the meetings should be more open.

“There’s not a whole lot of hot-button discussions going on,” Nielsen said. “But people shouldn’t have to take our word for it. We don’t do a good job of bringing the public into the process.”

There have been moments during committee meetings when Nielsen felt a discussion among the full council should have taken place.

Talk about whether to buy the $8 million parcel for a south Everett park was one of those moments.

Adding more parks to south Everett is a priority for the city. Neighbors wanted the city to buy the land. Some in the mayor’s office told council members the land was too expensive. The issue apparently fizzled out. Nielsen said there was confusion later about whether a decision was made by the council committee. In any case, he said the matter should have been brought forward for a full council debate.

City leaders try to limit committee meetings to routine matters, such as examining a proposed city work contract while saving for council meetings the issues more people are likely to care about, Councilman Paul Roberts said.

“There is some real appreciation that some things need to be vetted more in the community,” he said.

Committee meeting practices, like many other ways the council does business, are based on the way it’s always been done rather than on a standard set of operating rules, Roberts said.

Most city councils have written procedures that govern how they conduct their business. It’s an issue that Roberts said he has been thinking about for months. Now that he’s council president, he said it’s something that will be addressed.

He’s already formed a committee — one Nielsen promises will operate in public.

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

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