Lawsuit claiming county violated state ‘opening meetings act’ rejected by appellate court

A state appellate court this week rejected an appeal by a San Juan County based property-rights group, bringing a likely end to the legal battle over whether the County Council violated state law by meeting behind closed doors while crafting revisions to local land-use rules.

In a relatively brief, “unpublished opinion” issued on April 28, a three-judge panel of Division One of the state Court of Appeals decided unanimously that, “Because CAPR (Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights) submitted no evidence that a majority of the Council attended CAO Team gatherings or that the CAO Team exercised actual or de facto decision making authority, no ‘meeting’ occurred for OPMA purposes, and summary judgment was appropriate.”

The 16-page opinion was written by Michael Spearman, who on April 1 became Chief Judge of the Seattle-based court.

In October 2012, the Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights sued the county, claiming that the Open Public Meetings Act was violated when a group of county employees and three County Council members met to discuss the then-pending update of the county’s critical areas ordinances.

In 2013, Judge Alan Hancock of Island County granted “summary judgment” to the county at trial, saying that CAPR had presented no evidence that a trial on the facts was called for.

“I’m disappointed in the decision and in the fact that the very brief opinion was unpublished, which is an impediment to obtaining Supreme Court review,” CAPR attorney Dennis Reynolds said of the appellate court decision.

Reynolds said no decision on a further appeal would be made until he had talked with CAPR and with representatives of the other groups – Allied Daily Newspapers, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Washington Coalition for Open Government – who filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting CAPR’s position.

The update of the CAO was passed by the County Council in December 2012. It has since been the object of multiple appeals by various interest groups, cases that are ongoing in the San Juan County Superior Court and before the Growth Management Hearings Board. The CAPR lawsuit is the first lawsuit related to the CAO to be decided by an appellate court.

Deputy Prosecutor Amy Vira prepared the county’s brief and argued the appeal. Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord praised her handling of the case.

“Amy Vira went up against five lawyers with great credentials and matched them by sticking to the facts and the law,” Gaylord said. “It was impressive. I’m glad she’s on my side.”