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Council members may have broken the law during selection process

"Expert says Open Meetings Act was violatedWas the state's Open Public Meetings Act violated, as some contend, Tuesday night when the Oak Harbor City Council chose a replacement during a special meeting?Yes, said Michele Earl-Hubbard, a Seattle attorney who represents the Washington Newspaper Publishers' Association and is an expert in Open Public Meetings Act law.First of all, Earl-Hubbard said, the Oak Harbor City Council as a whole may have violated the law in a closed-door executive session an hour before the public meeting. She said the council and Mayor Patty Cohen violated the act by creating a list of guidelines for the qualities they wanted in a replacement for the late Councilman Rex Hankins.Earl-Hubbard said the council is allowed to evaluate the candidates' qualifications in a closed meeting, but they are supposed to discuss what qualities they favor in a replacement only during a public meeting.It's a fine line, she said, but the executive session is reserved for discussing or evaluating resumes.Creating the guidelines, she said, is going over the line because it's a step towards building a consensus, which isn't allowed in closed sessions.Also, Earl-Hubbard agrees with Councilman Paul Brewer that fellow Councilman Richard Davis broke the law. But she adds that Brewer may have too.During a break that he requested, Davis immediately followed Councilman Bob Morrison into a back room and asked Morrison why he wouldn't vote for Helen Chatfield-Weeks. At that point, the council was deadlocked between candidates Sue Karahalios and Chatfield-Weeks. Davis supported Chatfield-Weeks, while Morrison voted for Karahalios.Davis was also seen whispering to other councilors.Although it didn't change his position, Morrison said he felt that Davis was trying to sway his vote.Brewer said he walked into the conversation and told the men it was inappropriate to discuss the matter in private. He then asked Morrison not to change his vote but hang tight, Morrison said.Davis, however, said he wasn't trying to sway Morrison, but just wanted to know if his position could change. Davis later said that the private one-on-one conversations were the best mechanism he saw for breaking the tie.But Earl-Hubbard said Davis should have said what he had to say in public. What he clearly was trying to do was violate the law, she said. The conversation was clearly designed to keep the public from hearing.In addition, she said Brewer may also have broken the law because he asked Morrison in private not to change his vote.A purpose of the Open Public Meetings Law, she said, is to give the public a clear window into elected and public officials' decision-making process.While the incidents at Tuesday's Oak Harbor City Council meeting were far from gross violations, Earl-Hubbard said the state auditor, who oversees Open Public Meetings violations, may have concerns about the meeting. But legal action is doubtful. She said, however, the community should be concerned.Clearly (Davis) was trying to violate the spirit if not the letter of the law, she said. "

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