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County prevails in 'open meetings' lawsuit; appeal 'likely'
By Steve Wehrly/Journal reporter
A court has found that the state Open Public Meetings Act was not violated by the County Council by discussions in a joint council/staff “implementation committee” prior to passage of the CAO updates by the county council.
On May 9, Island County Superior Court Judge Alan R. Hancock issued a summary judgement in favor of San Juan County in the case of Citizens Alliance for Property Rights Legal Fund v. San Juan County.
Subject to an appeal, which CAPR spoke person Gordy Peterson said “is very likely,” the decision essentially dismisses the case.
CAPR Legal Fund sued the county in San Juan County Superior Court in October, seeking to have the critical areas ordinances invalidated because some 20 closed meetings were held involving three county council members and various county staffers to discuss implementation aspects of the draft CAO package. After these meetings, the entire council met, discussed and passed the package late in 2012.
The case was transferred from Superior Court Judge Don Eaton’s purview to Judge Hancock after CAPR attorney Dennis Reynolds successfully argued that Eaton should, as an elected officer of San Juan County, be disqualified.
Hancock’s decision squarely supported county Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord’s contention that the meetings in question were not “public meetings” under the Washington Open Public Meeting Act, that there was never a council quorum which could have taken any action at any committee meeting, that no actions were taken and there was in fact no authority for the implementation committee to take any action, and that there had been no evidence or argument presented that would lead to a conclusion the OPMA had been violated in any way.
Although he discussed and dismissed a number of tangential factual and legal issues, the crux of Hancock’s decision, based upon Washington appellate precedents, was “for the purposes of OPMA, a meeting occurs only if a majority or quorum of the governing body is present.”
Hancock addressed CAPR’s argument that the meetings attended by three council members should be “public meetings” for OPMA purposes because Gaylord had advised the council in April 2012 that there should be compliance with the open meetings act whenever there are gatherings of three council members for any purpose.
Hancock commended Gaylord’s “conservative advice” to the council, but said the advice was not a formal legal opinion and was, in any event, “incorrect” as applied to the OPMA.
CAPR spokesman Gordy Petersen said the decision failed to consider that enactment of the CAO was “corrupted by the secret meetings of three council members who could have voted together to block passage of the CAO if they didn’t get their way.”
Furthermore, said Petersen, “The judge’s decision was an overly narrow and restrictive interpretation of the Open Public Meetings Act, ”which the act itself provides “should be liberally construed.”
Gaylord, acknowledging an appeal is still possible, nonetheless issued a statement seemingly drawing a closing curtain on the case:
“This decision means we will not have to restart the public process that led to the critical areas ordinances," he said. "The events that led to this case are not likely to be repeated. The council of six is now history and the people approved changes to the county charter which makes all council subcommittees subject to the open meetings laws.”