SEATTLE — The Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a small group of San Juan County council members did not violate the open public meetings law by meeting informally with county officials and employees.
Affirming a lower court ruling, the Supreme Court said the team of council members working on an update of the county’s critical areas ordinance did not constitute a committee of and did not act on behalf of the council.
The original lawsuit filed by the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights asked the court to invalidate several county ordinances due to violations of Washington’s open meetings act during discussion of the new laws.
Washington’s open meetings law says a quorum of a government body cannot meet in private and conduct the government’s business. The San Juan County Council consists of six voting members, so it cannot act without a yes vote from four members. Other requirements of the open meetings act include meeting notices and recording of activities.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Charles Wiggins and signed by five other justices, relied on a 1986 state attorney general opinion of the way committees are formed, which said the council would have had to act to form the team to make it an official committee.
“None of the voluminous documents that CAPR (Citizens Alliance for Property Rights) obtained during discovery and cited in its court filings suggest that the council took any such action,” Wiggins wrote. He said county staff formed the group, not the council.
A partial dissent, signed by three justices, argues that the court does not really know if the informal group of council members acted on behalf of the council and that the critical areas ordinance team was actually a committee of the San Juan County Council.
Wiggins writes that he found no evidence of the group acting on behalf of the council and said it appeared to spend most of its time discussing procedural and logistical issues such as timelines and the formatting of reports.
“None of these activities amount to the exercise of actual or de facto decision-making authority,” Wiggins wrote.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said he was disappointed the court took such a narrow view of the law.
“The purpose of the open meetings act is so that people can see not just the final vote, but to see the entire deliberative process,” Nixon said. “People cannot truly see why certain actions were taken if they can’t see the whole process.”