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As tenants, landlords tackle housing laws behind closed doors, councilman Michael Cathcart calls for transparency

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 13, 2020

Spokane City Councilman Michael Cathcart speaks during a Spokane City Council meeting on Jan. 13. He is calling for open meetings on housing issues that could be on the City Council agenda soon. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane City Councilman Michael Cathcart speaks during a Spokane City Council meeting on Jan. 13. He is calling for open meetings on housing issues that could be on the City Council agenda soon. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

City leaders have convened a group of landlords and tenants to forge a compromise on a controversial slate of new housing laws. So far, however, the group has been meeting behind closed doors.

City Councilman Michael Cathcart is calling on Council President Breean Beggs and the work group to open its meetings to the public as it discusses housing issues that could be on the City Council agenda in the form of a new law in March.

Beggs said he consulted with the city’s legal department to confirm that the private meetings – of which there has only been one – are not in violation of the state’s open meeting law.

The group includes three representatives for landlords, three representatives for tenants and three members of the City Council. If four council members were present, it would constitute a quorum and require the meeting be publicly noticed ahead of time.

That bothers Cathcart, who is prohibited from these meetings despite being an elected official who, presumably, will be asked to vote on a product of the work group’s discussions.

Like any city committee or task force, Cathcart said the group’s discussions should be public.

“Just because something doesn’t have to be subject to the Open Public Meeting Act rules doesn’t mean we can’t do it anyway,” Cathcart said, adding the “more transparency, the better.”

Beggs likened it to a “focus group” and said its members will not make any binding decisions.

Despite a personal indifference to whether the meetings are public, Beggs said he would ask the group at its next meeting if its members wish to open up its deliberations.

“It just depends on who’s doing the talking. Some people feel more comfortable not being in the public glare when they’re giving their opinions,” Beggs said.

The group was formed after the council balked in December on a robust slate of housing-related proposals. The new law would have forced landlords to pay for a tenant’s relocation after raising the rent by at least 5%, and to cite one of seven specific causes for evicting a tenant.

The proposal met with strong pushback from landlords, who worried that it would disproportionately harm property owners with a relatively small number of units. It was shelved until March.

Beggs said the city regularly assembles informal work groups to address issues like this.

“It’s a stakeholder group to just talk about ideas,” Beggs said.

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