No one blamed for Oak Harbor's erroneous meeting rules

After months of controversy and an opinion from Washington’s top lawyer that says Oak Harbor sub-committee policies do not adhere to the Open Public Meetings Act, city officials last week unveiled changes that will bring the rules into compliance.

But don’t expect an admission of guilt. According to Mayor Jim Slowik, neither he nor any other member of his administration ever did anything wrong.

During a special meeting Thursday evening, Slowik said the sub-committee dispute was a murky issue and was sent to the Office of the Attorney General for resolution. That the opinion took a stance contrary to the city’s position does not mean he or any other city official acted inappropriately.

“We do not feel we were in the wrong,” Slowik said. “When we established these rules, we didn’t have this view point.”

City officials did have plenty of warning, however. Tim Ford, an ombudsmen for the Attorney General’s Office who specializes in the open public meetings act, and the Whidbey News-Times voiced repeated objections prior to the city council’s adoption of the new sub-committee policies this past summer.

The 2010 changes made sub-committee meetings the same as a regular city council meetings. The idea was to make it possible for a quorum of council members — four of the seven — to attend without having to advertise it to the public first with a “special” notice.

Slowik’s comments concerning the lack of blame during Thursday’s meeting were in response to City Councilman Scott Dudley, who asked City Administrator Paul Schmidt several times to acknowledge that Slowik, his administration, and the city council did in fact make a mistake in its interpretation of state law.

“Looking back at our rules, at our actions, it looks like we were in the wrong. Correct?” Dudley said.

“Based on our understanding now ... it looks like we were wrong,” he pressed, but Slowik wouldn’t say anyone erred.

Dudley, who has publicly acknowledged that he is strongly considering a run at the mayor’s seat later this year, went on to ask why City Attorney Margery Hite was not present at the workshop. The city council adopted the rule changes under Hite’s assurances that they were in compliance with the state’s meeting rules and that it was Ford who was misinterpreting them.

Schmidt, the presenter of the rule changes, said it was decided that Hite should not attend the meeting as it may have incited further legal debate, which would have been counter productive. The purpose of the workshop was to present new rules and to make sure city council members know exactly how to conduct themselves in the future.

Based on what was proposed at the workshop — the rules still need final approval — Ford said his concerns appear to have been addressed and congratulated Slowik for taking the necessary steps to bring the city’s sub-committee policies into compliance.

According to the proposal unveiled Thursday, the city will not remove any existing rules but will add new ones that require the city to advertise its sub-committee meetings with a “special” notice should a quorum of city council members attend.

Any council member — other than the three assigned to each sub-committee — who wants to attend will have to provide the city with at least 48 hours notice. In the event that a council member shows up unannounced, the meeting will immediately adjourn.

According to Ford, the changes are in alignment with what was suggested in the opinion and will make it clear to the public when its elected officials may be meeting to conduct business.

“This is a positive step,” Ford said.

The only change to the proposal came from City Councilman Jim Campbell. He suggested that the 48-hour notice be increased to 72 hours so that both the city and the public have more notice. Neither city staff nor any city council members opposed the alteration.

Thursday’s workshop was for discussion purposes only. The rules will now be drafted and are expected to go back before the city council for final review and approval in February or March.

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