The new Spokane Valley City Council may have violated the Open Public Meetings Act before attending their first official council meeting Tuesday night.
Four members of the seven-person council were elected to the council as part of the “Positive Change” slate and council member Gary Schimmels was re-elected on the same platform. During and after the November elections the candidates and some of their supporters would meet for coffee every weekday at 9 a.m. at the Yoke’s at Sprague Avenue and Progress Road.
The five were sworn in Dec. 23 and officially took office on Jan. 1. But since then, the weekday meetings have continued and for a brief time Monday morning, four City Council members were in attendance, constituting a quorum. If a quorum of council members is present a gathering is considered a public meeting and must be advertised at least 24 hours in advance as stated in the Washington state Open Public Meetings Act.
Monday’s gathering started with council members Dean Grafos, Tom Towey and Bob McCaslin. “They’re not official meetings,” said Grafos. “There’s no quorum. These fellows just stopped by to have coffee.”
However, moments later, council member Rose Dempsey arrived. “I have to leave now,” said Grafos, who spent a few minutes chatting with Dempsey before leaving the store. Dempsey took pains to point out that she didn’t approach the table where everyone was sitting until Grafos left. “I was not at the table,” she said. “I avoided the table. I wasn’t going to stay, but Dean left.”
Whether or not the four were in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act depends on what they were discussing, said open government ombudsman Tim Ford with the State Attorney General’s Office. If any public business was mentioned, they were in violation.
Even sending out an e-mail to fellow council members that generates replies and a back and forth discussion can be considered a public meeting and therefore a violation of the law, Ford said. “It doesn’t have to be simultaneous.”
Towey and McCaslin insisted that it was just a group of people gathering to chat and that city business has never been discussed at the meetings. But others who have attended previous gatherings said that the group often discussed what they wanted to accomplish once they took office. Retired businessman Kevin Anderson said he has been attending the gatherings regularly because the new council members are willing to discuss issues the city is facing, including the Sprague/Appleway Revitalization Plan. “They’ll talk about anything,” he said. “They’ll listen to me. They’ll listen to anyone. They’re a positive group of people.”
During Tuesday’s coffee gathering Towey and McCaslin were in attendance, but council woman Brenda Grassel soon joined them. “I need to touch base with Tom about the agenda for tonight,” she said.
The agenda was changed before Tuesday’s meeting to add a motion to ask for City Manager Dave Mercier’s resignation. Grassel confirmed after the council meeting that the motion was what she discussed with Towey and McCaslin.
Even though the three did not constitute a quorum, they could still violate the Open Public Meetings Act by discussing the agenda, Ford said. If any of the three called a fourth city council member to relay the substance of the discussion and get input, it would be a violation of the law.
Ford cited a case in Seattle where three council members met behind locked doors with the city attorney to discuss the budget. One council member left the room and a fourth entered to have the same discussion. Though the four council members were not present at the same time, it was still a violation. “It doesn’t matter that it’s not simultaneous,” Ford said.
The council members also have to be careful not to violate the Public Records Act. If any two or more council members share or exchange any document relating to the conduct of the city government, those documents are subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act and must be produced if a member of the public asks for them, Ford said. “It doesn’t matter that it’s less than a quorum.”
The council members in attendance at Monday’s coffee gathering insisted they were doing nothing wrong and that the meetings would continue. “These gentlemen that are here have become my friends,” Dempsey said. “I don’t want to lose that because of the elections. It’s just a pleasant way to spend the morning.”
Even as she said the meetings would continue, Dempsey acknowledged that it might look bad. “Even if we’re not discussing anything, it’s the appearance,” she said.
Grassel said she doesn’t want people to get the wrong idea. “We want to be very transparent,” she said.
The council does have the option of declaring the gatherings public meetings if they give notice in advance. They then would be required to take minutes and make those minutes available to the public, Ford said.
In the end whether or not any one of the weekday coffee gatherings is a violation of the law comes down to what is discussed and with how many, whether the council members are physically present or not. “Technically, they may not violate the law, but if they relate to the public business why not make it part of a public meeting at City Hall,” Ford said.