Update (April 22, 2009) — Happy Earth Day
In this editorial, Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr responds to an earlier editorial about his role in the “closed door” meeting controversy. The two editorials serve to highlight an often overlooked point — the public’s perception of a government’s compliance with open government laws can be more important than the government’s strict compliance with those laws. One of the primary purposes of open government laws like the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act is to build public trust. If the public thinks the government is trying to keep something secret that should be public, it builds distrust.
So were the proposed closed-door meetings legal? The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that there is no violation of the Open Public Meetings Act when less than a majority of the governing body meet. See, e.g., In re Recall of Beasley, 128 Wn.2d 419, 427, 908 P.2d 878 (1996). It’s worth noting that the provision in the Attorney General’s Open Government Internet Manual cited by the Og-Blog in its post on this controversy is off the mark, at least to the extent that it suggests that it is an open question about whether the OPMA applies when less than a majority of the government body is involved. The current version of the Internet Manual fails to recognize the Supreme Court’s unambiguous decision in Beasley, even though that case was decided ten years after the legislative change cited in the Internet Manual.
There is one possible exception, however, that has not been addressed by the Supreme Court. When a majority seeks to make decisions through a series of meetings, none of which include a majority but collectively do involve a majority. This may amount to an illegal “serial meeting.” An appellate court, in holding that an email exchange amounted to an illegal meeting, has recognized this concept, but no appellate court has squarely addressed the issue. See Wood v. Battleground School Dist., 107 Wn. App. 550, 27 P.3d 1208 (2001). Wood also recognizes that the passive receipt of information by a majority does not violate the law. For more on the Wood case, see this article.
But whether the meetings were legal is now a moot question. The Mayor and City Council opted to build trust by agreeing to open its doors, even if the meetings would have been legal.
As of Friday afternoon, April 10, 2009, the Seattle City Council and Mayor have decided not to hold closed-door budget meetings, according to this Seattle Times article.
This is a change from the City’s earlier decision to hold close-door meetings, which was criticized by the Seattle Times in this article and editorial as possibly violating the Open Public Meetings Act.