It’s not unusual for a Vancouver city councilor to attend meetings outside of council chambers. Councilors are assigned as liaisons to numerous city committees, but also attend various city events and neighborhood association meetings.
At times, too many of them attend the same event and, unless one of them leaves, they’re breaking public meetings law.
It’s happening enough that councilors discussed ways to remedy the situation during Monday’s meeting.
In Vancouver, a quorum of the city council is four of seven members at any location. For example, at a recent Vancouver Neighborhood Alliance meeting, four councilors showed up. In order to avoid a quorum, Councilor Bart Hansen left. But the council wants to find a solution that allows four or more to attend the same meeting without violating city code or the Washington Open Public Meetings Act.
Councilor Bill Turlay asked if they did have a quorum and only one person spoke at the meeting, if that would be acceptable. He was told no.
City Attorney Bronson Potter said regardless of who speaks, a quorum of the council present at any meeting or event engaging in city business requires public notice.
“In that situation to avoid an inadvertent violation of the law you should only have three council members or less,” Potter said.
This doesn’t mean councilors can’t congregate en masse at any city event.
“The law says you can attend meetings organized by other organizations, a quorum of city council can go to a chamber luncheon (for example) but they can’t discuss the business of the agency,” said Toby Nixon, a Kirkland City Council member who also serves as president of the Washington Coalition of Open Government.
Council members can even travel together to events, Nixon said, so long as the conversation avoids council business.
“That’s a very hard thing to do but it’s explicitly stated in the law that traveling together to a meeting like that is OK,” he added.
Where an issue arises for Vancouver’s council is meetings where a quorum is possible but not guaranteed. Any time the council meets with a quorum, public notice is required. Meetings outside of the regular council schedule are considered special meetings, which require 24-hour notice and an agenda of topics to be discussed.
“Whether or not they need to announce it as a public meeting depends on the topic of the meeting,” Nixon said. “If it’s going to be a topic that has to do with a current issue before them they should announce it as a public meeting.”
The Kirkland City Council follows a similar procedure to Clark County’s council, Nixon said.
“If we think a quorum of the city council is going to be (at an event) we’re going to go ahead and announce that as a public meeting,” he said. “It can be kind of strange to do that.”
Regular Greater Kirkland Chamber of Commerce meetings, for example, Nixon said, often come with a public meeting notice from the city.
“It can take a little bit of coordination or orchestration if you’re going to have one of these things where there’s a third-party meeting where a quorum is going to attend,” he added. “But it’s just not consistent with the spirit of the open public meeting act (to not give notice).”
Clark County often includes events where a quorum is likely in its weekly calendar. Next week’s calendar includes a Youth Achievement Celebration at Skyview High School and the C-Tran board meeting, for example.
Vancouver Councilor Alishia Topper asked to consider amending the city’s policy to allow council to attend at least the monthly neighborhood association meeting. She said it’s happened before and will happen again that a quorum of council wants to attend the meeting.
“I think we should consider making that adjustment to our policy so we don’t get into this issue where one of us has to leave where it’s equally important for all of us to attend,” Topper said.
City Manager Eric Holmes said it’s possible to add the neighborhood association meeting to the council’s agenda of regular meetings, which would eliminate the requirement for a special meeting notice. A workshop is tentatively scheduled in August to evaluate city policy, which provides an opportunity to look at meeting notice rules.
“I would really like to see some progress on this,” Turlay said. “There’s a lot of times where we drive a considerable distance, and I’d like to attend the meeting rather than go back home.”
He added that it’s important for council to listen to what the residents have to say at these meetings.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to be with the community,” Turlay said. “Let’s make it legal somehow.”