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Mayor critical of council quorum at private party

Mayor Scott Dudley is claiming that the Oak Harbor City Council violated the Open Public Meetings Act by getting together for a cocktail party last week.

“I think as elected officials we need to be aware of the appearance of impropriety,” Dudley said.

Six members of the city council, the city administrator, mayor and other staff attended a Municipal Finance Conference last Thursday and Friday in Leavenworth.

Councilman Rick Almberg, who owns a home in the area, invited the council and staff to a “wine and hors d’oeuvres session” after the conference Thursday.

Six council members, City Administrator Larry Cort, City Attorney Nikki Esparza, Finance Director Doug Merriman and some of their spouses attended.

Almberg said the mayor was also invited but declined.

The mayor said he was never formally invited.

Dudley said he doesn’t have a problem about the party per se, but rather with how Almberg went about it.

“I have been to Rick’s house and other social gatherings,” Dudley said. “That’s not the issue.”

According to the Open Meetings Act, a public notice must be issued when a quorum or majority of council members meet to discuss public business.

With the council comprised of seven members, a quorum is created when four are present.

Almberg said the conference was advertised as a quorum and that the city officials didn’t go to his home to conduct official business.

“The chatter was really about our budget workshops and the conference,” Almberg said.

“It’s been advertised that we are together, in my mind the little get-together wasn’t in violation of the open meetings law.”

Cort said that social gatherings are one of the few things that are “specifically exempted” from the Open Meetings Act. However, he said just about everyone takes a very conservative view on that statute.

“There can’t be any discussion of city business.

“If I hear even the start of a conversation on public business, I step in and say, ‘This is over,’” Cort said.

Cort said conversations he observed at the Leavenworth social gathering never ventured toward city business, but was  mostly about the Leavenworth area, hikes that party-goers had taken, shops in town and where to meet for breakfast the next morning.

“We take very seriously our efforts to work in an open and ethical manner,” Cort said. “I’m pretty wary of this issue.”

Dudley said there’s no way to truly know if city business was discussed during the party, and that the public has a right to know if there’s a possibility it could occur whenever there is a quorum.

“When you have a decision-maker calling a meeting, hosting a gathering at their house, out of town, and you have a quorum, does it raise some eyebrows? Absolutely,” Dudley said.

“They say no business was discussed. But how do we know that?

“An ethical council member would have said, I realize how this may look, let’s post it or, better yet, don’t have a quorum of city council members at your house out of town.”

“We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

Almberg said the assertions are “another Mayor Dudley throwing everyone else under the bus.”

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