Oak Harbor committee rules under scrutiny

Oak Harbor City Council’s “standing committees” will have more formal rules to follow if the city attorney’s recommendations become law.

More than two years after the city established standing committees, City Attorney Margery Hite presented a proposed ordinance to “formalize” the committee rules Tuesday during a regular council meeting. Standing committees consist of three council members who discuss agenda items with city staff before the issues go before the full City Council .

The move comes after charges by the Whidbey News-Times, supported by the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, that at least one standing committee meeting violated the Open Public Meetings Act when a majority of council members attended, constituting a quorum.

“There has been some confusion about the nature of standing committees,” Hite told the council Tuesday. “We proposed this to clarify some important points.”

The new ordinance, if adopted by the City Council, will apply to each of the four standing committees: Finance, General Government, Public Safety and Public Works.

The draft outlines the meetings’ purpose, to “facilitate the legislative functions of the council.” It also covers rules on who may attend the gatherings and clarifies that council member attendance is voluntary. The draft states that the meetings must comply with the Open Public Meetings Act, no final actions may be taken, the committees will each have regular meeting times, dates and places, and lastly, the committee meetings must have a prepared agenda that will be posted to the city’s website at least two days before the scheduled meeting.

City Administrator Paul Schmidt started the standing committee format in 2008 in order to encourage efficiency and effectiveness.

Last February at the biennial retreat, the City Council planned to discuss rules associated with standing committees and discovered that there were none. This was before the flare-up over the public meetings act.

“Ms. Hite noted there are currently no adopted rules for the committees,” according to the retreat meeting minutes, which the News-Times requested from City Hall this week. The minutes were not posted online.

The committee practices came under fire in April when a majority of the City Council attended a Public Works standing committee meeting to discuss and review Pioneer Way improvement plans.

While Hite maintains the city did nothing wrong, Assistant State Attorney General for Government Accountability Tim Ford, an expert in this area of law, said the city did not provided proper notice of a special council meeting.

Ford reviewed the meeting notice and concluded that it was proper notice of a committee meeting, but not of a meeting for a quorum, or majority, of the City Council.

Councilman Scott Dudley believes the proposed standing committee ordinance does not go far enough to make the standing committee meetings accessible to the public. During the retreat, and again last Tuesday night, he pushed for all committee meetings to be video recorded and televised on Channel 10.

“We could find the money,” he said.

Hite presented the proposed ordinance to the City Council for information only. A more formalized version of the ordinance will return to City Council for a possible vote at its June 1 meeting.

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