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Monday, April 13, 2009

UPDATED (2) City of Seattle Plans Secret Budget Meetings

The City of Seattle plans on having meetings of four of the nine council members (less than a quorum) to discuss how to cut the budget reports the Seattle Times.

Why? Because you little citizens can't handle all the facts. The story says "Council members said they oppose closed-door meetings in general but said there's no reason to bore the public with complex briefings and logistical decisions." Yep, it's just your money but there is "no reason to bore" you with the details. You are being treated like children. And a majority of your fellow citizens keep voting for these people.

Is this sub-quorum meeting a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act? Here's what the Attorney General's Open Government Internet Manual (section 3.4(B))says:

"A meeting [which triggers the OPMA] occurs if a quorum (that is, a majority) of the members of the governing body were to discuss or consider, for instance, the budget, personnel, or land use issues no matter where that discussion or consideration might occur. What about if less than a quorum is present? Several cases hold that the OPMA is only triggered by a quorum of the governing body, so the 'action' of less than a quorum is not subject to the OPMA. See, e.g., Eugster v. City of Spokane, 128 Wn. App. 1, 8, 114 P.3d 1200 (2005). Others argue that the legislative history of the OPMA indicates that the statute formerly required a quorum for an 'action' but was amended to apply to an action with less than a quorum. Laws of 1985, ch. 366, § 1(3)."

Note that the Eugster case is summarized as "the 'action' of less than a quorum is not subject to the OPMA." So if one half of the non-quorum (the four out of nine council members) does something, it's not the action of the whole council under Eugster. Yes, but "discussion" or "deliberation" of city business is "action" which triggers the OPMA. So if any information or discussion or deliberation travels from one half of the non-quorum to the other half of the non-quorum, you have a "discussion" or "deliberation" by the whole council; it just happened in two stages instead of one.

Since the City of Seattle thinks you are a child, the following illustration is appropriate. If one group of kids at an elementary school cafeteria table discuss something and have one kid go over to the other table and repeat it, and then bring back the thoughts of the second table to the first table, you have a "discussion" albeit it in two stages.

When one half of a quorum of a city council shares information with the second half of the quorum, this is called "jumping the quorum." Which is what will happen. Which is why the City of Seattle will violate the OPMA.

UPDATE 1: The City Council decided not to hold the sub-quorum meetings. The Attorney General's Office got involved and--credit where credit is due--apparently the City Attorney, Tom Carr, urged the Council to open the meetings.

Here is a Seattle Times editorial on opening the meetings; here is the later editorial congratulating the Council for doing so.

The Evergreen Freedom Foundation wrote a letter to the City Council that could be read as the threat of an Open Public Meetings Act lawsuit. Probably "just a coincidence" that the Council decided to open up the meetings.

(Sorry we're a day late on posting this. We took a day off on Friday. There's no news on a Friday, right?)

UPDATE 2: Here is Danny Westneat's column on this debacle.