Washougal council, mayor spar over meetings law

Guard posted complaint about committee online

By Justin Runquist, Columbian small cities reporter

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The Washougal City Council and Mayor Sean Guard are at odds over whether the councilors violated public meetings law last month.

Guard took his accusations against the council to Facebook about two weeks ago posting that the councilors may have violated the state's Open Public Meetings Act. The allegations are targeted at the council's ad hoc budget committee, a fairly new group consisting of all seven councilors.

The committee meets a couple times a month on Friday mornings at City Hall or in the Port of Camas-Washougal's meeting room, and anyone can attend. According to the committee's rules, discussions are supposed to stick to budget-related issues, but Guard said the talks may have wandered from that topic at a meeting on July 25 when the councilors apparently discussed shifting committee appointments.

He also said the council gave no public notice for that meeting or another one a week earlier, and it took weeks for records from those meetings to turn up. The mayor hasn't sought a state investigation into the matter, but he's asked the city clerk and finance director to review notes and tapes from the meetings.

In a tense council meeting Monday night, Guard and the councilors traded jabs over the accusations. Councilor Dave Shoemaker chided Guard for taking his concerns public before addressing the councilors in private.

Shoemaker said that in his four decades of government experience he's never seen anyone with such a lack of leadership and an inability to work with colleagues as Guard has recently shown.

"(The Facebook post) appears to be an attempt to stir up public resentment against the council," Shoemaker said. "The mayor has driven a wedge between himself and the council."

Guard said he took to Facebook after repeatedly failing to get a response when he asked for meeting records from Greenlee, who took the lead on creating the committee.

"I find it a little bit ironic that the problem that some council members seem to have is the fact that I called you out in public, not the fact that there were repeated violations of the state's Open Meetings Act," Guard said.

Greenlee said he wanted to create the committee because the councilors needed more time to discuss tough budget issues and their visions for the city. Councilor Joyce Lindsay echoed Greenlee's point, and both expressed a lack of confidence in Guard's budget plans, which project several years of deficits — including a shortfall in excess of $1 million by 2018.

"We are trying to bring to you a budget that is responsible and fair and not a rubber stamp of ongoing increasing deficits," Lindsay told the audience. "If you are a citizen of Washougal, this is your money we're talking about, and however the mayor tries to embarrass or shame us in public, we are doing our duty."

Councilor Connie Jo Freeman also weighed in, saying Guard should have tried to reach out to the other councilors before turning to Facebook.

"I was never aware that there were discrepancies, that there were meetings unnoticed, that we were breaking any laws," she said. "You keep talking about repeatedly informing us, but I was never repeatedly informed."

Councilor Brent Boger, who also works as an assistant city attorney in Vancouver, said the council may have violated the law in a couple ways. Failing to provide notice of the meetings boiled down to a simple miscommunication between city staff and the council, he said. And Boger added that he noticed some of the talks had strayed from the budget.

Nonetheless, Boger said he hopes the council can move past the dispute soon because the committee serves a good purpose.

"I'm frankly a little uncomfortable with the whole thing, but I think it's OK," he said. "I think it's produced some results."