Next stop for lawsuit over long-gone council subcommittees? State supreme court

Every so often, issues that arise in Washington state’s smallest county ends up under the gaze of its highest court: jet skis, recorded telephone conversations, the identity of political campaign donors, to name a few.

And, that’s where San Juan County’s legal team expects to be sometime near winter’s end, defending itself yet again against allegations that a series of County Council subcommittee meetings, which took place some four years ago as part of the critical areas ordinance update, violated the state Open Public Meetings Act.

Win, lose or draw, Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord maintains that a ruling by the state Supreme Court in the case of Citizens Alliance for Property Rights Legal Fund versus San Juan County should have no bearing on how the county or the council conducts business today.

The lawsuit was rejected in an earlier ruling in Superior Court by Judge Alan Hancock, whose decision was upheld this past April by the state court of appeals.

“This lawsuit should not change anything in San Juan County,” Gaylord said. “The practice of applying the open public meetings law to all subcommittee meetings was implemented on the cautious advice of the prosecuting attorney long before the lawsuit was filed. And, under the 2012 charter amendments, all subcommittees of the counsel are subject to the open meeting laws.”

The county could be on the hook to pay for attorney fees, however, should the Supreme Court side with the plaintiffs. Gaylord said many variables would come into play if such a result comes to pass.

“Depending on how the court rules attorney fees may become an issue,” he acknowledged. “When there’s a decision that’s adverse to the county, that’s when we’ll cross that bridge.”

At request of the CAPR Legal Fund, backed by the Allied Newspapers of Washington and Washington Coalition for Open Government, the Supreme Court agreed Nov. 5 to hear the case. The court may have agreed to hear the case in large part so that the justices could determine themselves when and how the OPMA should apply to subcommittee meetings of a legislative body, Gaylord said.

Bainbridge Island-based attorney Dennis Reynolds, representing CAPR Legal Fund, has not responded to telephone calls seeking comment on the case.

As it stands now, legal interpretation of the OPMA, enacted in 1971, are guided mostly by opinions authored by the state attorney general or in rulings handed down by the state’s appellate court.

As for the case involving the county, Gaylord said closed-door meetings of the former CAO implementation team, attended at the time by as many as three council members, ended long ago, in April 2010, and long before revisions to the CAO were adopted, and that there was “great opportunity” for public comment on the revisions in the numerous public meetings that followed after meetings of the implementation team were long discontinued.

Moreover, the six-person council was replaced by a 3-person council under the 2012 voter-approved changes to the county charter, thereby eliminating any potential of subcommittee meetings of the council.

Initially, in a lawsuit filed in October 2012, CAPR pursued sanctions against the county for the alleged OPMA violations, and sought to have elements of the CAO update overturned, as well as to have penalties imposed on members of the council that attended the closed-door meetings. The group would later withdraw several of the penalties it sought and its allegations would later be rejected in the ruling handed down by Hancock.

The Supreme Court has yet to set a date to hear the case.