A recent decision by the state Supreme Court could now provide some cover for public officials looking to conceal the more controversial parts of the sausage making they do as members of city and county councils, school boards, fire district boards and panels leading other public agencies.
The high court’s decision, signed by six justices, ruled that a small group of San Juan County council members had not violated the state Open Public Meetings Act when two of the council’s six members met informally with county employees and others to draft an update of the county’s critical areas ordinance. The Citizens Alliance for Property Rights sued, asking the court to invalidate the ordinance because many of the discussions used to draft it were held without notifying the public of the meetings.
The court determined the county council hadn’t officially formed the update committee and a quorum was never present at any of the committee’s meetings. Three of the court’s justices, however, in a partial dissent, agreed that the committee was acting on the council’s behalf as it drafted recommendations and should have complied with the public meetings act. Even the update committee in San Juan County, halfway through its process, thought better of meeting outside of the public eye and opened the door to its meetings.
The Open Public Meetings Act requires that all meetings of a public agency’s governing body be open to the public and provide adequate notice. But the court, in its Oct. 1 ruling, relies on a narrow interpretation of the act that appears to ignore its intent, said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and a member of the Kirkland City Council.
An interpretation of the act more generous to the public good would have noted that the act considers “action” by a governing body to include the gathering of public testimony, deliberations, discussions and evaluations, and not solely final action. Likewise, the act also says a governing body includes any committees that acts on its behalf.
The ruling’s effect, Nixon and the open government coalition say, would allow governmental agencies to chart a path around the public meetings act by appointing small, informal groups to gather information, discuss alternatives and make recommendations, and do so outside any public scrutiny.
The problem isn’t with the committees. Considering the crush of work involved in drafting ordinances and policy, farming out parts of the process to committees is a reasonable course. But that doesn’t mean that process can be done without the public’s knowledge and observation.
The Coalition for Open Government is asking the court to reconsider its ruling, but it’s also preparing a bill for the Legislature’s coming short session in January that would provide a brighter line on what the act requires for inclusion of the public.
With only 60 days in the session, there won’t be a great deal of time to push a bill through, but Nixon believes it could find its way in front of legislators if it’s joined with reforms many public agencies are seeking regarding public records requests.
Allowing the public to observe committee meetings — and providing adequate notice of those meetings — isn’t a high bar to clear. Until the court reconsiders or the Legislature clarifies the act’s requirments, public officials, some of them elected earlier this week, ought to take the steps necessary to meet the intent of the Open Public Meetings Act.