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Prosecutor reverses decision on council subcommittees
By Scott Rasmussen/Steve Wehrly
Casual conversations between members of the San Juan County Council, even about county business, well, that’s alright.
But in a change of course, San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord is tightening the reins on the County Council and its use of subcommittees.
“If the use of subcommittees is to refine the council’s decision-making,” Gaylord said, “then those meetings need to be open to the public.”
Gaylord, who previously determined council subcommittees were not subject to the state Open Public Meeting Act, reversed that earlier opinion on the heels of a more exhaustive review of a state attorney opinion, and in light of a precedent out of the state of Wisconsin, known as the “super-majority” rule. He said that since three members of the County Council, if aligned through their work on a subcommittee, can band together as a “voting bloc” and effectively sway an outcome of the county’s legislative body.
In an April 26 memo to the council, Gaylord concludes, “In the future, meetings should take place in a location that allows the public to attend and observe. The notice requirements for special or regular meetings will need to be followed. This advice pertains to all meetings of three council members.”
Currently, the council has three subcommittees with three members each; budget, general government and solid waste. Following the prosecutor’s advice, the council was expected to revise its public notification process for subcommittees at its May 1 meeting.
The prosecutor’s new opinion drew applause from Gordy Petersen, Chairman of the Charter Revision Commission, which has wrestle with the issue involving council subcommittees during its deliberations.
“For anybody who believes the government should be open, this is a very positive thing to do,” Petersen said, adding that open meetings and transparency of government was one of the first planks agreed upon by the commission. “People should have no doubt that the charter review commission supports this change and that we will put this on the ballot for inclusion into the new county charter.”
Among the changes brought on the county’s voter-approved home rule charter, was a reassembling of the county legislative body, from three full-time commissioners to a six-person council of elected officials whose jobs are considered part-time. Expansion of the legislative body was intended, in part, to allow the county’s top elected officials to talk with one another about county business.
Gaylord said concern over transparency has grown in recent years as the work of council subcommittees “evolved”. While subcommittees can be effective in gathering information or discussing an issue, he said the possibility exists for members of a subcommittee to become aligned and act as a voting block.
“I think it’s really been a gradual change in the way the council is doing business,” he said. “But now it’s become problematic.”
Councilman Howie Rosenfeld, Friday Harbor, thought the exemption from the OPMA was “productive” because it permitted a three-person subcommittee to talk freely among themselves.
“My experience, especially on the budget subcommittee where we talked about the county budget and people’s jobs without constraint or fear of misinterpretation, colored my view that everything should not have to be a pubic meeting,” Rosenfeld said, “but I’ll adapt to the new policy.”
Lopez Island’s Steve Ludwig feels vindicated by Gaylord’s reversal. Ludwig and a friend were barred several years ago from attending a council subcommittee working on a new set of wireless communication rules.
“I’m really glad they did this,” Ludwig said. “But I’m still in favor of changing the county council from six members to three if for no other reason than to get rid of three of the present members.”