Rhenda Strub is not going to like this editorial.
She’s the Olympia city councilwoman who’s miffed that a guy named Steven Segall had the gall to question the City Council’s practice of conducting private meetings via e-mail from the council dais.
Segall, you see, lives in Thurston County, but not in Olympia – a fact that apparently disqualifies him from the right to question the council’s practices.
Strub told The Olympian newspaper, “He’s just meddling in something that, frankly, is none of his business.”
Consider this our application to join Segall in the Olympia Meddlers Club. We too live outside the Olympia city limits, and we too think the council’s deliberation-by-Internet stinks.
So does the attorney general’s open government expert, Tim Ford. He wrote to Olympia Mayor Doug Mah last month to criticize the council’s use of e-mail during council meetings.
“E-mail deliberations on public matters that are concurrently being discussed in a public meeting are wholly inconsistent with the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act and should cease,” Ford said.
Segall brought the matter to the attorney general’s attention after requesting and receiving copies of the council members’ e-mails during six City Council meetings this fall.
Those e-mails show council members lining up votes and, in one case, calling a community activist sitting in the audience a “coward.” A Sept. 23 exchange shows council members debating – unbeknownst to the public – the release of a property from a moratorium.
The e-mails, if not a direct violation of state open meetings law, are at the very least, a rude way to treat people who attend council meetings expecting to hear members debate the items on their agenda. They also certainly violate the spirit of the law.
That the city released the e-mail records after the fact is an outright admission that the exchanges were a public deliberation that should have been happening in public.
The release is no substitute for letting citizens in on the conversation when it’s actually occurring. The promise of future disclosure means little when the public may learn too late that a back-and-forth on e-mail may have influenced an important policy decision.
We may be interlopers from outside Olympia, but the idea that a council could have what amounts to a secret meeting under the cover of an ostensibly legal and public one should be troubling to anyone concerned with ensuring that public business is done in public.
The Olympia council is certainly not alone in using technology to circumvent (elected officials say “expedite”) the public process. These practices have the potential to undermine the state’s open meetings law – and the 2009 Legislature ought to plug this loophole.
Busybodies and meddlers everywhere must be alert to official abuses of information technology. Unfortunately, the very technology that often helps citizens monitor the inner doings of government can also be used to shut the public out.