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Lawsuit claims Yakima City Council broke transparency rules

 (Yakima Herald-Republic)
(Yakima Herald-Republic)
By Kaitlin Bain Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. – An Olympia man who describes himself as an open-government activist is suing the city of Yakima for an alleged violation of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Four members of the Yakima City Council participated in the Chamber of Commerce’s annual “State of the City” luncheon earlier this year to give attendees an update on a variety of city issues.

But Arthur West says the city didn’t give notice about the May 14 meeting where four members were discussing city business. Having a quorum of four or members is one of requirements of a meeting under state law. Dulce Gutierrez, Kathy Coffey, Kay Funk and Brad Hill attended.

City spokesman Randy Beehler said the city doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation and the city is looking into the allegations.

The Chamber of Commerce listed the event on its website and sent out an email about the upcoming event explaining the agenda, cost and how to register. The event asked attendees to pay $22 if they were a member of the Chamber and $32 if they were not.

“Basically, if you’re a member of the Chamber and you have $30 to spend, you can have a special private meeting with the City Council where they discuss business,” West said. “I don’t think that’s what the Legislature had in mind when they were passing the Open Public Meeting Act.”

Toby Nixon, Washington Coalition for Open Government board president, said state law defines a meeting as a quorum of a government body taking action on city business.

“Action is very broad,” Nixon said. “It’s not just discussion or public testimony, but deliberation, which includes thinking or review or consideration.”

With this definition, Nixon said it’s clear the Chamber lunch should have been noticed as a meeting.

In Kirkland, where he’s a member of the City Council, the Chamber hosts a similar annual luncheon. The city provides notice of the meeting and any resident who wants to attend can do so for free if they opt out of the meal, Nixon said.

West is asking the court to rule in his favor and requesting that any of the named council members found to have knowingly violated the Open Public Meetings Act be fined $500 per violation – the penalty set forth in state law. He’s also requesting to be awarded costs and applicable attorney fees.

West also named the three Yakima County commissioners in his lawsuit for a similar alleged violation, but focused more on the Yakima City Council in the filing. As was previously reported by the Yakima Herald-Republic, cannabis store owner, attorney and candidate for a 14th Legislative District House seat Liz Hallock is suing the commissioners over their participation in a June 11 Chamber meeting. West said he included the commissioners to make the requested penalties more clear and align with state law. Hallock has updated her lawsuit as well.

West has made a name for himself suing municipalities and other government agencies for violation of public records or open public meetings law. A resident of Olympia, West said in his lawsuit he can sue the city and county of Yakima based on state law that says “any person” may take action regarding a governing body’s public meetings violations.

Of his most notable victories, a Thurston County judge in 2015 found the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board committed 17 violations of the Open Public Meetings Act.

West also sued the city of Yakima in 2012 for a public records violation, which the city settled for $25,000.

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