The timing was coincidental, having a special work group of the Pierce County Council meet with county Sheriff Paul Pastor one day after The News Tribune article on skyrocketing overtime in the jail.
That was the topic of the meeting in council chamber Monday. But it had been scheduled well ahead of the latest reports on overtime costs.
Still, the Sunday article brought attention to the issues involved – more mentally ill inmates at the jail requiring increased supervision that is covered through growing overtime hours. There also is concern that money set aside to hire more street deputies might have to be used to cover jail overtime.
I showed up to listen to the meeting. Pastor was there as was Undersheriff Eileen Bisson. County budget officials were invited as was a representative of County Executive Pat McCarthy. But when the three members of the task force arrived, I was asked to leave.
I did. Eventually. But first I wanted to know why they thought they could close the meeting and why they would want to – elected sheriff, elected council members, important issues clearly of interest to the public.
Councilmen Roger Bush and Dan Roach both said they thought the meeting could be closed to the public because its three-members make up less than a quorum of the seven-member council. Bush said it was a “noticed” meeting and the notice said it would be closed. The purpose, he said, was to foster communication between the council and sheriff.
Later, in a phone conversation, Roach said he thought an open meeting would not be productive, comparing it to a reality TV show where everyone starts acting.
Bush especially has been unhappy with the way Pastor has been managing his budget and that new deputies authorized by the council have not been hired. Now, higher-than-expected overtime costs in the jail means some of those new deputies won’t be hired at all.
I assumed that by “noticed” Bush meant a meeting notice sent out by staff under the state Open Public Meetings Act. But no such notice was sent. Only word of mouth announced the meeting.
Before I left I asked the third task force member Rick Talbert if he thought the meeting should be closed.
“I’m not comfortable with the way this is going down,” Talbert said. Then he got up and left the meeting in protest, causing Bush to accuse him of grandstanding because I was there.
Afterward, Talbert said that the group was selected by Council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald to iron out questions regarding Pastor’s budget. It has been in the works for months, but the first meeting was delayed to match up everyone’s schedules.
The size of the work group appears designed so as not to trigger the open meetings requirement. Roach’s regular committee, which is clearly subject to open meetings rules, already covers the subject matter assigned to the work group. Roach said after the closed meeting that his committee meets quarterly with the sheriff and he though more frequent and less formal meetings would be helpful.
The state open meetings law doesn’t just cover the council but “any committee thereof when the committee acts on behalf of the governing body, conducts hearings, or takes testimony or public comment.” Even though it is temporary and specialized, this task force took testimony from Pastor. And Roach said he will report back to the entire council, perhaps at next week’s study session.
As a council subgroup, a quorum is a majority of the members of the subgroup, not a majority of the entire council. But there is a dispute over when subgroups trigger the open meetings and notice requirements. In its Open Government Manual, the state attorney general office cites a 1986 opinion by the office about when and if subgroups are covered by the law.
The question is over the definition of the phrase “acts on behalf of the governing body.”
“A 1986 attorney general opinion concludes that a committee acts on behalf of the governing body ‘when it exercises actual or de facto decision-making authority for the governing body.’ ” the manual states. “That opinion, citing the legislative history of the OPMA and its amendments, distinguished when a committee is exercising such authority from when it is simply providing advice or information to the governing body.”
The attorney general’s advice, however, is this: “While an argument can be made that a committee may be required to give notice only for those meetings when it will be taking testimony or public comment or exercising decision-making authority for the governing body, it would be prudent for such committees to conduct all their business in open meetings.”
Roach said afterward that the closed meeting was productive. Pastor explained the difficulties in hiring qualified deputies, information that wasn’t known by the council members, Roach said. And he told the council that he was concerned about hiring new deputies when the county is facing another round of cuts. Roach said he tried to assure Pastor that the council would “have his back” on those issues.