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Puyallup council skirts law with small-group meetings

Post by Kim Bradford on June 27, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
June 27, 2011 5:43 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

The Puyallup City Council is flirting with trouble under the guise of efficiency.

Council members meet monthly with the city administration in closed-door meetings designed to avoid a council quorum – and therefore the state’s open meetings law.

City Manager Ralph Dannenberg says he began the small-group sessions – no more than three of the city’s seven council members attend at a time – after taking over last year. The goal, he says, is to improve communication between staff and the council.

Insert eye rolls here.

How many times have citizens in Puyallup and elsewhere heard the claim that government must work in secret to work better? Too many.

The blame isn’t Dannenberg’s. He has a job to do, and his marching orders specifically included keeping the council in the loop, not playing favorites with information and smoothing over tensions between council members.

We’re more concerned that six of his bosses – the six council members who participate in these meetings – have gone along with the harebrained idea.

City officials insist that the topics are routine updates – such as reports on road projects – and that no votes are taken. But no one has to ask for a show of hands for consensus to emerge. And the topic doesn’t have to be on the next council agenda for the discussion to have an influence on city business.

Decision-making is a subtle art. The actual vote is but one step and often not the most important. How leaders reach their conclusions can be more significant than the conclusions themselves.

All it takes is for the city manager or a council member to convey information from one group to the other, and the sessions have just become a serial meeting and a possible violation of the open meetings law.

The line between legal and illegal may not always seem obvious. Why chance crossing it? Why allow even the perception that the City of Puyallup is not conducting its business in open?

Councilman John Knutsen gets credit for being the lone council member to steer clear of the meetings.

But perhaps he should consider a change of strategy: By showing up, he could either force at least one of the sessions into the open by creating a quorum, or prompt the council to split up into even more small groups.

Either way, the shaming would be the same.

Elected officials don’t get to decide what the public might find interesting. A road project may not be up for a vote, but news of its progress is of interest to more than just council members. Should the project go south or otherwise need council intervention, those council discussions would be the foundation on which decisions are made.

“The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” That’s from the state open meetings act. Puyallup officials should remember that it has a strong bias for as much – not as little – open government as possible.

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