Oak Harbor City Council splits on public meeting issue

Over the objections of two Oak Harbor City Council members and an official from the state Attorney General’s Office, the council has approved meeting policies that may violate the Open Public Meetings Act.

During its regular meeting Tuesday, June 15, the council approved in a 4-2 vote an ordinance that solidifies its standing committee policies. The ordinance permits a quorum of council members to attend standing committee meetings by making them regular meetings of the council. The new rule does not allow a vote to be taken at the meetings, which are advertised as open public meetings.

Council members Bob Severns, Rick Almberg, Jim Palmer and Beth Munns voted for the ordinance, while Jim Campbell and Scott Dudley were opposed.

“It’s not a matter of us intentionally doing something wrong,” Almberg said.

This is an issue where two attorneys are arguing about details so small it’s akin to “splitting hairs,” he said. The public will look at this and see that all the truly important bases have been covered, he said, adding that standing committee meetings are advertised well in advance and are completely open to the public.

The ordinance has been repeatedly criticized by Tim Ford, an open government ombudsman for the Attorney General’s Office. Ford, who reviewed a copy of the ordinance, said standing committee meetings and regular council meetings are not the same no matter what a city decides to call them. He claims that if a quorum of council members attend a meeting, it has to be advertised as a “special” public meeting.

Ford’s comments do not carry the same weight as an official opinion from the attorney general’s office; however, his job is to provide the public with information about both the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act.

But despite his concerns, the chief author of the ordinance, City Attorney Margery Hite, has repeatedly insisted her interpretation of the Open Public Meetings Act is correct. She argued again Tuesday night that Ford’s concerns are unclear and that the ordinance aligns with state law.

“I’m not positive what his theory is,” Hite said.

Yet Campbell, who contacted Ford following a June 12 story in the Whidbey News-Times in the hopes of gaining clarity on the dispute, said that Ford had been quite clear. And considering his qualifications, his comments should be given serious consideration.

“His livelihood is being an expert on the Open Public Meetings Act,” Campbell said. “He says this is not quite right.”

Campbell acknowledged that he is not an expert, but reported that both the city and individual council members who “knowingly” break the law could be subject to fines. He went on to say that Ford volunteered to work on the ordinance himself until it was right and suggested the council hold off its vote until it could review Ford’s written suggestions. Dudley agreed.

“You would think we would want to do everything in our power to make sure this is done right,” Dudley said.

Munns said she trusted Hite’s interpretation of the law while Palmer said this issue has been hashed out for months and should not be further delayed. He also said that if the city was truly in jeopardy of adopting rules against state law, it would have received notice more substantial than the opinion from a single representative of the attorney general’s office.

“I think if there was an official response to this, we would have heard about it by now,” Palmer said.

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