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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Washington AG asked to clarify when information can be released from secret sessions

A Spokane legislator wants advice from state attorneys on what city officials can reveal about secret, closed-door sessions like the one that preceded the ouster of the city’s police chief.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, asked for a formal attorney general’s opinion to clear up what he believes are “gray areas” on what information can be released by officials from an executive session and what must be kept confidential.

Spokane officials who attended an executive session the day before police Chief Frank Straub was fired have been warned by an assistant city attorney that they could face criminal charges if they reveal what was discussed. The warning came more than a month after the council voted to “waive privilege” on information from that meeting so members could speak with an investigator looking into problems in the police department and City Hall.

“I definitely do not think people are being as open as they should be at City Hall,” Riccelli said.

He decided to request a formal attorney general’s opinion over what’s exempted under the state’s Open Public Meetings Act after a recent discussion with Council President Ben Stuckart.

Such an opinion does not have the force of a judge’s ruling, but often serves as guidance to government officials until a court is asked to decide a specific case. Under state law, a legislator can ask for an attorney general’s opinion, but a city official cannot.

Other cities also have reported disputes over what officials must keep confidential from executive sessions, Riccelli said. In 2009, the attorney general’s ombudsman for open government issued an informal opinion that some things discussed in executive session can be made public.

“Not all information shared in executive session may be confidential,” Tim Ford wrote at the time. “Moreover, while the executive session allows closed meetings on specific topics, it does not limit your First Amendment right to speak about non-confidential information that concerns the public.”

But Ford was answering questions that dealt primarily with executive sessions on real estate purchases.

“Let’s clear it up,” Riccelli said. “If it can’t be cleared up, we may need to look at a law.”

It’s particularly important in Spokane, where city officials were warned they could be prosecuted for revealing information, he said. Even if officials doubt that’s correct, the safe thing is for them to do is say nothing to avoid defending themselves against the charge.

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