Pierce County Council Chairman Roger Bush has told Executive Pat McCarthy that her plan to improve communication among government officials would violate the state Open Public Meetings Act.
In an e-mail Monday, Bush told the executive her proposal to expand her weekly one-on-one meetings with Bush to include other council members “may seriously inhibit the council’s ability to comply with the Open Public Meetings Act.” He proposed continuing the one-on-one meetings.
Bush’s e-mail is the latest evidence that communication between the executive and legislative branches remains a touchy subject.
The two branches of government feuded publicly throughout 2009, with both sides accusing the other of failing to communicate.
Just before the holidays, McCarthy offered a solution: instead of meeting weekly with Bush alone, she proposed a weekly “three-on-three” meeting that would include two members of her staff and two other council members.
On Monday, Bush rejected that proposal, citing the open meetings law.
The law requires meetings of government bodies to be held in public. According to the state Attorney General’s Office, a meeting “occurs whenever the governing body of a public agency takes ‘action.’” The attorney general defines “action” as “discussion, deliberation or evaluation that may lead to a final decision.”
A quorum of the seven-member council would be four council members. That means four members couldn’t meet behind closed doors to discuss public business without public notice and access.
However, Bush contends that three members meeting together could constitute a quorum of one of its committees, which generally have five members.
“To have this many elected officials meeting behind closed doors would violate the spirit of open government that our citizens expect and the law demands,” Bush wrote to McCarthy.
I have a call in to the attorney general’s office to clarify whether open meetings requirements would apply to the type of meeting McCarthy has proposed.
Meanwhile, you can read Bush’s e-mail below.
From: Roger Bush
Sent: Monday, January 11, 2010 4:40 PM
To: Pat McCarthy
Cc: Kevin Phelps; COU
Subject: Response to Dec. 17 e-mail
Dear Executive McCarthy,
We appreciated the good intentions behind your “Happy Holidays” e-mail (below) to the county’s elected officials. Our response was delayed while we examined some of the issues your message raised. In the spirit of our shared goal of communicating first in person rather than through The News Tribune, I am sending it to you before replying to David Wickert.
I’m concerned that your suggestion to expand our one-on-one Wednesday discussions to include two additional councilmembers may seriously inhibit the council’s ability to comply with the Open Public Meetings Act. While a quorum of the full council is four members, it takes three councilmembers to compose a quorum of our five-member committees and just two members for a quorum of our Rules and Operations Committee. To have this many elected officials meeting behind closed doors would violate the spirit of open government that our citizens expect and the law demands.
The County Charter – along with council rules – grants the council the authority to set county policy and manage the budget, and entrusts the executive with implementing that policy and managing the county’s departments. It also establishes a legislative process for conducting regular public meetings for dialog and decisions on policy and budget. If both branches are careful to stick to the duties and procedures the Charter prescribes, the residents of this county will be best served.
I hope we can continue our Wednesday one-on-one discussions. Also, you still have an open invitation to our Tuesday Study Sessions where you are welcome to ask as many questions as you wish.
This council and the executive want the same thing; to do our best for this county and those who live here. If we are mindful of the role each is responsible to play, good communication will naturally take place. We look forward to working with you in 2010, and we welcome your participation in the legislative process that has served Pierce County well for almost 30 years.