Clark County took a position on one of the region’s most politically fraught topics and then abruptly reversed itself after emerging from a closed-door meeting.
During the council’s board time meeting on Wednesday, Council Chair Marc Boldt asked the council to take a position on a bill, sponsored by most of Clark County’s legislative delegation, intended to streamline the replacement of the Interstate 5 Bridge, which has long been a divisive topic.
The item wasn’t on the meeting’s agenda, but Boldt asked for the council to take a position on the legislation so the county could provide directions for its lobbyist in anticipation of an upcoming hearing on the bill.
Initially, Councilors Julie Olson and John Blom, along with Boldt, supported the bill “with concerns.” Councilors Jeanne Stewart and Eileen Quiring preferred to take a neutral position on the legislation.
Later in the meeting, the council entered executive session, a special meeting that allows officials to exclude the public while they discuss legally sensitive topics. When the council reemerged, the councilors who initially backed the bill changed their minds.
“I’ve been thinking about this bill,” said Boldt almost immediately after the council reemerged from executive session. “I don’t feel comfortable about it.”
Blom and Olson responded with similar reservations. With almost no further discussion, the council reverted to a neutral position on the bill.
Under the state’s Public Meetings Act, government entities like the Clark County council can enter executive session to consult with their attorneys to discuss existing, pending or threatened litigation, along with a couple other situations, according to Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
“But it would be hard to make the case that the council’s position on a bill before the Legislature could possibly result in litigation or that having the discussion in public would result in any increased legal risk to the county,” wrote Nixon in an email to The Columbian.
Before entering executive session, Boldt announced, as required by law, that it was to discuss “potential litigation.” Boldt, Blom and Quiring later told The Columbian the legislation was not discussed during executive session. (Olson didn’t respond to a request for comment and Stewart wouldn’t say what was discussed).
Boldt and Blom told The Columbian that they had mulled over concerns raised by Quiring earlier in the meeting that the item wasn’t on the agenda. Quiring complained that she didn’t have time to review the bill and potentially persuade other councilors.
“It may sound like I’m a little upset, because I am a little upset,” Quiring said during the meeting.
During the meeting, County Manager Mark McCauley said that the item wasn’t on the agenda because a hearing on the bill had been scheduled for the following Monday and that was the only opportunity for the council to adopt a position in time.
According to Nixon, a governing body can take up any topic at a regular meeting even if it’s not on the agenda.
“It’s disrespectful of the public to take action on things not on the agenda, but it’s not illegal,” he wrote.
Earlier this month, Vancouver City Council signaled its support for a replacement of the I-5 Bridge. Boldt said the county council probably should have given more notice that such a controversial topic was being considered. But he said the county was trying to respond in time to the upcoming hearing. Boldt also said he wants the council, which developed a reputation for its bickering and now has two new members, to get along and wanted to respond to Quiring’s concerns.
Stewart admits the situation could have been handled better.
“We fumbled a little bit, in other words,” she said.