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Illegal Oak Harbor open meeting rules reviewed

Oak Harbor sub-committee policies that violate state public meeting laws will be the topic of a special open workshop this week.

The meeting, to be held Thursday at 6 p.m. at City Hall, will be the first time the city council has met to discuss in detail an opinion released by the state Office of the Attorney General more than a month ago regarding sub-committee rules.

The official opinion, while influential, does not carry the force of law. It concluded that certain city policies, specifically those concerning the advertisement of meetings, do not comply with the Open Public Meetings Act.

City staff have not yet released details about just what changes will be recommended to the city council, but Mayor Jim Slowik reaffirmed promises he made in December that nothing less than full compliance with the decision will be proposed.

“My commitment to the city council was to adopt what the attorney general’s opinion was,” Slowik said.

In the spring of 2010, city staff proposed an ordinance that made sub-committee meetings the same as regular council meetings. While some differences remained, the rule change made it possible for a quorum of council members to attend sub-committee meetings.

When a quorum of decision-makers gather and conduct city business anywhere but at their regular meeting, state law requires that it be advertised first with a “special” notice. The idea is to ensure the public knows when and where decisions are being made. Making sub-committee meetings just another regular meeting allowed the city to dodge that safeguard.

Both Tim Ford, an ombudsmen for the attorney general’s Office that specializes in the Open Public Meetings Act, and the Whidbey News-Times voiced repeated objections about proposal, but the city council adopted the change anyway under the assurances of City Attorney Margery Hite.

To settle the issue, first the newspaper, then city officials asked state Rep. Barbara Bailey to put in a request with the attorney general for a review and formal opinion. But even though the decision is now out and Slowik has sworn to abide by it, there is still some concern about just what will be proposed at Thursday’s meeting.

It all comes down to interpretation of the opinion, according to City Councilman Jim Campbell, who was one of two council members to vote against the June ordinance. Campbell said he hasn’t seen a draft proposal yet but he’s heard some of what city officials plan to bring forward.

“I don’t get the impression they get it,” Campbell said.

He would not elaborate further, saying that he would reserve comment until the workshop. He did say, however, that the proposal must completely align with the attorney general’s opinion.

Other council members don’t appear to share Campbell’s concerns. Councilman Rick Almberg said he has never experienced any “closed-door” activity during his time in office and that he has no problem supporting all the recommendations of the decision.

City Councilwoman Beth Munns seconded Almberg’s sentiments, saying that she also has no qualms with rule changes that will bring the city into compliance with the open public meetings act. Sub-committee meetings are extremely helpful in educating decision-makers about upcoming issues, she said, opining that the attorney general’s opinion really only says they have to be advertised a specific way.

“All it is, is wording,” Munns said. “It’s not changing anything.”

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