May 23, 2010 in City

Unofficial meetings generate contention

By The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane Valley City Council’s new majority started off its term in office by possibly violating the Open Public Meetings Act, meeting for coffee every day at a local grocery store. One veteran council member said she believes the group is still discussing city business in secret.

“Decisions are made before they come to the meeting,” Councilwoman Rose Dempsey said. “I’m certain of that.”

Dempsey attended one of those early coffee meetings at which there was briefly a quorum of council members present. A gathering at which a quorum of council members is present is considered a public meeting and, by state law, must be advertised at least 24 hours in advance.

Councilman Dean Grafos, Councilwoman Brenda Grassel and Mayor Tom Towey said city business was not being discussed at the coffee meetings. But during one such gathering, Grassel met with Towey and Councilman Bob McCaslin at the grocery store and said she needed to “touch base with Tom about the agenda for tonight.”

It’s a violation of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act for two or three council members to discuss an issue, then contact other City Council members to relay the substance of the discussion and get input, Washington’s open-government ombudsman said in January. “It doesn’t matter that it’s not simultaneous,” said Tim Ford of the state attorney general’s office. Even participating in an e-mail discussion could violate the act, he said.

Dempsey said she believes those types of discussions are going on now. “You have serial meetings going on,” she said. “The same things are talked about.”

Dempsey said McCaslin, who is a longtime state legislator, has told the other council members that such discussions are legal even though her own research has shown that they are not.

“He tells the others it’s OK,” she said. “He’s tried to tell me it’s OK.”

She said that during a short break in a recent council meeting, as she walked past Grassel, Grafos and McCaslin, McCaslin stopped her and she was asked by Grassel if she would provide the fourth vote to kill the Broadway Avenue Safety Project that was approved by the previous council.

“It didn’t happen publicly,” Dempsey said. “I just stepped back and said, ‘Whoa. This has to happen in public.’ ”

McCaslin has been hospitalized for more than a week and was unavailable for comment. Both Grafos and Grassel, however, deny that anything improper took place.

“I had my back to Dean and Bob,” Grassel said. “They were not in that circle. It was solely me.”

Grassel said she simply asked Dempsey if she would consider a motion to kill the project. “I asked her, ‘If I put forward a motion, is that something you would consider?’ ” Grassel said. “I wasn’t collecting votes. If she took it the wrong way, I didn’t realize that.”

Grassel challenged Dempsey to provide evidence of her allegations that the council majority is holding improper gatherings. “I think at this point I would call that a conspiracy theory,” she said.

Grafos also denied that such meetings are taking place, saying, “I think Rose is a little bit paranoid. I think she is probably disappointed that she wasn’t picked as mayor. I am not having serial meetings with other council members.”

Grafos chided Dempsey and Councilman Bill Gothmann – the two members who are not part of the “Positive Change” platform on which the other five were elected – for not focusing on the issues facing citizens. “Bill and Rose have elected to make Dean Grafos the issue,” he said.

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