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Shawn Vestal: Spokane Valley council could use a refresher course in open meetings law

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

Under Washington state law, elected municipal officers are to deliberate and take action in public.

Has the four-member majority of Spokane Valley City Council simply granted itself an exemption? Are they – as the majority before them was credibly accused of doing – forming unofficial quorums and showing up at public meetings with decisions already made?

The hasty firing of the city manager Tuesday suggests that they have, by pre-baking the decision, not following proper public notification, omitting any public consideration of countervailing views until the deal was done, and failing to explain their vote at the meeting. A member of the council majority, Ed Pace, argues that they followed the law, and that if there was any outside discussion among the members of the majority beforehand it was in groups of two or three – not a full quorum, which would be improper under state law.

But the very fact that the three minority members of the council were taken by surprise makes it hard to accept that. There’s little doubt that this decision, among others, is not following the path of maximum daylight. Elected officials best serve the people with ample public notice, legitimate open debate, and public justification for decisions – not quickie coups d’etat.

The council voted 4-3 Tuesday night to fire City Manager Mike Jackson, who has had the job since 2010, and was deputy city manager before that. The council vote followed an executive session called to discuss Jackson’s performance, following which they took public testimony and voted. Members of the council minority said they were not informed of the executive session until Tuesday morning, later than the requirement for 24-hour public notice.

Furthermore, Jackson had been asked to resign last Friday by two members of the majority, Mayor Rod Higgins and Deputy Mayor Arne Woodard. It would be exceedingly odd if those two decided on their own to make such a request of the top bureaucrat in the city, without any coordination among the majority.

But that’s what Pace said occurred. “That’s just two guys expressing an opinion,” he said.

Pace said that he understands the state Open Public Meetings Act, and believes in it, and feels the council followed it. He said he and the other members of the majority know they cannot meet as a quorum, or even slide around the rules by meeting in smaller groups and informing one another, and he insists they haven’t done so, though the minority has complained about other matters that have been brought to the council without notice for immediate action.

“Our city attorney was involved and he was pretty thorough about making sure we were in compliance with state code,” Pace said. “I’m confident everything we did was proper.”

Milt Rowland, a former longtime Spokane city attorney who is representing Jackson, said that the way the events played out leaves room for doubt.

“I certainly have questions,” he said Wednesday. “I wouldn’t presuppose any violation. I would just like to understand how it took place.”

I have no idea whether Jackson was good at his job, but a lot of other people seem to think so, including two former mayors, a former council member and the sheriff. One of the three-member minority, Dean Grafos, called the move a “travesty.” Another, Chuck Hafner, praised Jackson and said the decision will mean that Spokane Valley “will no longer be the envy of other cities.”

Violating the open meetings law is kind of a Spokane Valley council tradition. In 2010, a new majority took over the council and continued holding little coffee-klatches that had begun during the campaign. Evidence emerged of votes being pre-cooked by the majority – arranged, negotiated, plotted – before meetings. Ironically, some of the people who criticized the Jackson firing were among those accused of breaking the rules back then, including Grafos and former Mayor Tom Towey.

Here’s a remedial primer on the essence of the state open meetings law: Public officers are to take all action in public meetings that have been advertised publicly. They can occasionally meet privately to discuss certain matters, as the council did with Jackson, but only when they notify the public. And it is improper for a quorum of council members to gather and discuss city business – or, even if they are not in a room together, to communicate in such a way as to arrange, discuss or prefigure a public vote.

To do so makes a literal mockery of the democratic process.

I believe city council members and other local government representatives should go further – should seek ample testimony, should actually deliberate publicly, should err on the side of more inconvenient public interference and disagreement.

It seems clear to me that, even if the council majority has somehow managed to meet the letter of open meeting law, it has not operated in its spirit, which is best summed up in the introduction to the law itself: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.