May 15 2012

It is time to change Shoreline’s idea of open government

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This intimidating sign is posted just outside a short hallway near the restrooms on the first floor of the City of Shoreline’s City Hall at 175th and Midvale. The hallway leads to a rather unassuming conference room where most of the City Council’s ‘dinner meetings’ are held. It is a typical conference room with a big table, seating perhaps 16, and a few side chairs along the walls. These meetings are informal affairs, where actual conversations take place and genuine ideas are born. And yet, despite the insinuation of this sign’s message, dinner meetings (with a few exceptions) are open to the public.

Following a dinner meeting, the Council typically exits stage left through double doors into the adjoining Council Chambers, a practically designed room, which has really only a vestigial hint of pomp and circumstance befitting 21st century America, and which easily accomodates a large gathering of city staff and members of the public. The Council Chambers are used for the regular business meetings and study sessions, which are stilted, formal proceedings, replete with Roberts Rules of Order and other grand gestures like flag salutes, proclamations, etc.

Most people who have attended a City Council business meeting or study session know they are open to the public. Not so many know that dinner meetings are also open to the public. The threatening sign pictured above may be one of the reasons they don’t.

Most government meetings are open to the public. Washington state law requires it. There are some exceptions, but dinner meetings is not one of them; nor are ‘special meetings’ or offsite ‘retreats’.

The Revised Code of Washington (RCW) is the compilation of all permanent laws now in force for the state of Washington. It is surprisingly easy to read. Really. It is made up of 91 ‘titles’, each covering a major area of state law. Each title contains anywhere from a few chapters to several dozen. Each chapter is made up of sections. Each section is labeled, making it easy to cite, and easy to find. The label names the Title, Chapter, and Section. It is a very simple, elegant organization. Let’s take a look at  two important sections of the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of open goverment law in Washington State: the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act, which have been around in one form or another since the Watergate era (not coincidentally).

RCW 42.30.10 Open Public Meetings Act — Legislative declaration

The legislature finds and declares that all public commissions, boards, councils, committees, subcommittees, departments, divisions, offices, and all other public agencies of this state and subdivisions thereof exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of this chapter that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.

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.

RCW 42.56.030 Public Records Act — Construction

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that 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 maintain control over the instruments that they have created. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected.  In the event of conflict between the provisions of this chapter and any other act, the provisions of this chapter shall govern.

Not all City Council meetings are open to the public. Many are still governed by the Open Public Meetings Act, but are not required to be open. These meetings are termed ‘executive sessions‘.  The Open Public Meetings act requires that exective sessions be announced in advance, that the announcement take place in a public meeting, and that a formal reason for closing the meeting to the public be part of that announcement. There are  only 13 exceptions allowed. The Catch-22 here is, since the meeting is closed to the public it is difficult if not impossible to know if it truly meets the exception criteria. Besides the exceptions just mentioned, there are four types of proceedings which fall outside the Open Public Meetings Act altogether. And even though Council is allowed to close these various meetings to the public, they are not required to do so. They can open any meeting they choose to the public.

Some people feel there are two many exceptions; that the Open Public Meetings Act is “swiss cheese”. But if the holes were plugged, the result would perhaps be an undue invasion of privacy or a severe constraint on the financial operations of the governmental agency. The problem is not the holes in the cheese. The problem is the rat in the kitchen.

The public has not only the right to know what happens in government, they have the right to control what happens in government. That is America. The Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act, in addition to the election, initiative, and referendum processes, are part of that toolkit for control, for ensuring government is by the people. Learn them. Use them. Be the cat. Watch the rat. Attend the next dinner meeting. Tell the Shoreline City Council to…

Tear down that sign!

One response to “It is time to change Shoreline’s idea of open government”

  1. anonymous says:

    Well done! The sign has been torn down.

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