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July 12, 2020

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Quiring text message raises concerns about open meetings laws

By , Columbian political reporter
Published:

On the afternoon of Aug. 8, Clark County Councilors John Blom and Julie Olson both received a text message they said concerned them.

The text was from Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring asking them to consider or reconsider adding Karen Bowerman to the list of potential candidates for a vacant seat on the county’s planning commission.

“She has an excellent resume, and I think that an addition of a woman on the planning commission is a good thing,” Quiring wrote in the text, obtained through a public records request. “She has served in public office and I believe could add a positive point of view.”

Neither Olson nor Blom responded to the text out of concerns that it violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Under the law, councils, boards, commissions and other governing bodies have to give notice of meetings (with some exceptions) where a majority of its members meet to conduct business. Courts have found that meetings can happen over electronic communications such as text.

“I guess I made an error by doing it,” said Quiring, who called the text “absolutely nothing.” She added, “I won’t do it again.”

Complicating the exchange is that Karen Bowerman is the wife of Earl Bowerman, the chair of the Clark County Republican Party. Last month, Quiring indicated she would seek election as the Clark County Republican Party’s vice chair, around the same time Karen Bowerman applied to the planning commission.

Earl Bowerman, who survived a recall attempt last month from a faction of his party, has been supportive of Quiring as the party’s vice chair.

Quiring said that she supported Bowerman’s appointment because of her qualifications, not because of her party affiliation. But Councilor Temple Lentz, the five-member council’s sole Democrat, said that Quiring made poor choices and is concerned about how the move looks. Olson, a Republican, agreed.

“I think the optics are difficult and are a problem,” said Olson.

How it works

The volunteer, seven-member planning commission evaluates and makes recommendations on land-use and development issues before they reach the county council. Most of its recommendations are adopted by the council. Both Blom and Quiring served on the planning commission before being elected to the county council in 2016.

The county charter assigns the council the power to make appointments to the commission, and the county announced a vacancy in May and another in July.

Emails, obtained through a public records request, show that the council received 10 applications. Each member of the council submitted a list of candidates they wanted to interview, and at an Aug. 7 meeting settled on three candidates to interview on Aug. 21: John Meier, Bryan Halbert and Joel Mattila.

The next day, a county office assistant emailed the councilors asking if they would like to interview more candidates after Meier withdrew. Later that afternoon, Quiring texted Blom and Olson asking them to consider Bowerman. The council later added Bowerman, Elizabeth Gomez and Eric Holt to its list of candidates to interview.

Quiring told The Columbian that she uses the same criteria for all appointments, including Bowerman.

“I went by their qualifications,” she said.

Bowerman’s resume lists a doctoral degree and stints working for governors in Kansas and Texas. Quiring pointed to Bowerman’s work as a college dean and service on the Lake Oswego, Ore., City Council. Her resume also lists her service as a first vice president of Clark County Republican Women and a party precinct committee officer.

Blom, also a Republican, said that it wouldn’t be fair to hold an applicant’s community connections against them and had more concerns about Quiring’s text message lobbying for Bowerman.

Lentz said she considers Quiring’s text message a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act, but called it “relatively small.” She credited Blom and Olson for not responding to it.

“At a time when (Quiring) is looking at running for vice chair (of the Republican Party) it was also a poor choice to personally lobby for the wife of the current chair to be on the planning commission,” she said.

On Aug. 22, the county announced that Halbert had been appointed to the commission. The other vacancy remains open.

Definition of meeting

The state’s Open Public Meetings Act states that just because a majority of a council or other governing body are present together doesn’t make it an official meeting. The law states that it becomes a meeting if they take “action,” which can include “deliberations, discussions, considerations, reviews, evaluations” as well as votes. These meetings legally can be held by telephone or video conferencing if they are open to the public.

Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said that a meeting could be a conference call, online comment thread or text or even communication through a third party, such as a lobbyist or administrator. He said that the law matters.

“The people have the right to know the decisions that their elected officials make and also how they arrived at their decision,” he said.

He said that members of a governing body can send out electronic communications to each other for informational purposes as long as they don’t use the messages for deliberations.

Governments that run afoul of the law could see lawsuits that result in their actions being invalidated by a court. Earlier this year, the city of Seattle paid $3,500 to settle a lawsuit alleging its city council violated the law. Members of the governing body can be subject to civil penalties for violating the law, which Nixon said he’s not aware of ever happening.

Olson said that after receiving the text she spoke with Emily Sheldrick, the county’s top civil lawyer, who she said reminded Quiring of the law.

“I think she probably has a better understanding now,” said Olson.

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