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State Rep. Barbara Baily seeks official opinion on Oak Harbor public meeting policies

The city of Oak Harbor’s public meeting policies may soon be under the scrutiny of one of the state’s highest offices.

Following requests from the Whidbey News-Times and the city of Oak Harbor, 10th District Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, has agreed to ask the state Office of the Attorney General to issue a formal opinion on a recent ordinance the city council adopted regarding its standing committee meeting rules.

“It’s been a public issue for a long time,” Bailey said.

In an interview Monday morning, she said she agreed to make the request because both the public and the city deserve resolution on the matter. “This has been a point of contention for too long,” she said.

The issue was brought to her attention by The Whidbey News-Times. She then consulted with Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik and decided to ask the attorney general’s office for a formal opinion.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano and chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, also expressed a willingness to look into the issue. However, Bailey, who is up for election this year, was the first to commit to asking the attorney general’s office for an opinion.

Marcia Van Dyke, publisher of the Whidbey News-Times and the South Whidbey Record, said city officials have maintained that its standing committee policies conform with state law, despite a series of news stories, editorials, and concerns from a state expert highlighting potential problems with the rules.

“It’s unfortunate the city has refused to investigate this issue further when so much uncertainty has been voiced on the matter,” Van Dyke said. “It is our hope that an official opinion from the attorney general’s office will clarify this issue once and for all.”

On June 15, the city council approved an ordinance that made the city’s four, three-member standing committee meetings – Public Works and Utilities, Public Safety, Finance, and Governmental Services – “regular” meetings of the council. The new rule made it legal for a quorum of four or more council members to attend three-member standing committee meetings without being advertised beforehand as special meetings.

Council members Bob Severns, Rick Almberg, Jim Palmer and Beth Munns all voted to approve the ordinance while Jim Campbell and Scott Dudley voted against it. Campbell and Dudley did not support the move mainly because the new rules had been repeatedly called into question by Tim Ford, an open government ombudsman for the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.

Ford has maintained for months that standing committee meetings and regular council meetings are not the same, no matter what a city calls them. If a quorum of council members attends a meeting, it has to be advertised as a “special” public meeting, he said. The city is currently advertising them simply as regular meetings of the council.

Without that distinction, the public will never really know when a quorum of the council is meeting to conduct city business, said Ford, because unlike full meetings, the ordinance does not require council members to attend standing committee meetings.

Votes can only be taken at full meetings, however.

Although considered an expert in both the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act, Ford’s comments do not carry the same weight as an official opinion from the attorney general’s office. His job is only to provide the public and local governments with information about the state’s open government and transparency rules.

The council’s decision to approve the ordinance despite the state expert’s concerns spurred leaders at the Whidbey News-Times and its ownership group, Sound Publishing, to look into the matter further by consulting Allied Law Group, an Olympia-based firm that specializes in open government rules.

“The council appears to be playing semantic games to dodge notice requirements for ‘special’ council meetings and, in so doing, violating its mandate to conduct the public’s business in an open and transparent manner,” said Sound Publishing Editorial Director Douglas Crist, in a recent letter to the firm.

Bailey said she has asked the attorney general’s office to consider issues in the past and her requests have never been refused. However, while the petitions of legislators do carry weight, she said she had no idea if it would commit to examining this issue as well. She said she planned to submit materials to the attorney general when she travels to Olympia this week.

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