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Oak Harbor City Council now meets 7 times a month in reaction to public meeting controversy

The city of Oak Harbor’s standing committee meeting notices look a little different these days: They’re advertised as meetings of the full City Council.

As a result, the City Council now has as many as seven meetings monthly, compared to the previous two.

The change resulted from an improperly advertised meeting about the Pioneer Way design plan last month.

The meeting of the Oak Harbor City Council set off a debate over the Open Public Meetings Act and the city’s meeting practices.

Bill Will, Washington Newspaper Publishers Association general manager, said the mayor’s decision to invite the entire, seven-member City Council to a three-member standing committee meeting disregarded the intent of the Open Public Meetings Act.

“If there’s going to be a quorum, there has to be proper notice,” he said.

The meeting was advertised as a committee of three council members, not as a meeting of the full seven-member City Council.

“It sure as hell violates the spirit of the law,” Will said in a phone interview.

Mayor Jim Slowik still believes he made no mistake by inviting the entire City Council to a public works standing committee meeting held the second week in March.

“I thought we were doing the right thing and I’m not convinced that we weren’t,” he said of the gathering that included six of the seven council members.

Despite the mayor’s denial of any wrongdoing, the city’s meeting notification policy has changed to jibe with the Open Public Meetings Act.

City Attorney Margery Hite added the following to all standing committee notices: “The mayor of the City of Oak Harbor hereby calls a special meeting of the governing body of the City of Oak Harbor pursuant to RCW 42.30.080 and RCW 35A.12.110.”

Standing committee meetings are now essentially the same as a City Council meetings, she said.

That means there will be roughly seven City Council meetings each month; only the tradition two evening meetings will be filmed and played on Channel 10 at this time.

Nevertheless, Hite, who approved the controversial meeting, still feels the city did no wrong.

But her interpretation of the law has sparked controversy.

Will later wrote in an email, “I really think Hite is splitting hairs, and is laboring under one of the most common misconceptions of the open meeting law — that it’s anything goes at an illegal or improperly noticed meeting as long as no votes are taken. If a quorum of the council is gathered to talk about the weather, it’s not an illegal meeting. If a quorum has gathered and they’re talking about city business — any city business — it’s a meeting under the law and needs to be noticed properly.”

The six City Council members devoted a substantial part of the controversial meeting to a discussion and review of the downtown revitalization project.

“We’re sorry it became a public issue,” Slowik said of an article that appeared in the Whidbey News-Times on March 13 in which Assistant State Attorney General for Government Accountability Tim Ford — an expert in this area of law — said the city failed to provided proper notice of a special council meeting.

In response to Ford’s comments to the Whidbey News-Times, City Attorney Hite wrote a letter to Ford that stated, “The City of Oak Harbor respectfully disagrees with your interpretation of the Open Public Meetings Act.”

In an interview last week, Hite said Ford “is confused” about standing committee meeting rules.

Since the exchange, Slowik said he’s requested a copy of the city of Seattle’s standing committee rules, and the council will discuss the matter once it has time.

Councilman Jim Campbell is on an extended vacation, several council members and the mayor are freshly back from a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., and “more pressing” issues such as nude dancing have taken center stage.

“We haven’t talked at any length at all,” Slowik said. “The newspaper has to give the city time to respond to that article.”

As for Ford’s letter, Slowik doesn’t give it much weight.

“I don’t think it’s an issue,” he said, adding, “I have no comment on that letter.”

Check the city of Oak Harbor Web site, www.oakharbor.org, for the times, dates, locations and agendas of the of the council meetings.

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