Puyallup City Council’s practice of meeting with the city manager in small groups out of the public eye has irked some residents. One council member declines to attend, citing concerns about the appearance of openness.
Tim Shirts, a council watchdog and critic, said the public has a right to know what members talk about.
“If they’re allowed to meet behind closed doors, then we can’t hold them accountable for their decisions because we don’t know how they’re reaching their decisions,” Shirts said.
But the mayor and city manager of East Pierce County’s largest city say the monthly sessions are helpful, efficient and above-board; no action is ever taken, they say.
“There are so many important topics that face this council and this community,” said Puyallup Mayor Kathy Turner. “To be suggesting that communication with your city manager is a bad thing is a really sad message to be sending.”
No more than three of the council’s seven members attend each session. Four or more would constitute a quorum, or majority, which would require a public meeting.
Turner and City Manager Ralph Dannenberg described the sessions as purely informational, providing updates on matters such as road projects.
Dannenberg said he determines the topics and avoids items that will appear on upcoming council agendas.
“There’s nothing secret here,” Dannenberg said. “These are not meetings where they’re asked to vote.”
He said he started holding the sessions after he took over the manager post last year because council members asked for better communication with city administration, and to be provided updates equally.
Another goal was to help improve strained relationships on the council, he said, adding that he believes the small gatherings have helped.
Dannenberg said he consulted with the city attorney, state open government experts and other city managers, and that his predecessors held similar sessions.
Dannenberg also provides regular written updates to the council that are posted online.
Jim Doherty, a legal consultant for the Seattle-based nonprofit Municipal Research and Services Center, said that as long as the gatherings are informational only and limited to routine updates, he doesn’t believe they’re subject to the state Open Public Meetings Act.
Some other Washington government agencies hold similar closed-door sessions; others do not. The Port of Tacoma executive director in 2006 stopped the long-standing practice of having port commissioners meet with staff in groups of one or two to discuss complex topics after The News Tribune raised questions about openness.
Under the law, a council generally isn’t supposed to meet out of the public eye to conduct official business. That can include separate, successive meetings.
Puyallup officials said the sessions with Dannenberg typically are spread out over two sessions on the same day or close to it. Participating council members attend one or the other.
Councilman John Knutsen said he doesn’t attend because while the sessions may not be illegal, he doesn’t feel they’re “consistent with the appearance of openness.”
Tim Ford, the state Attorney General’s open government ombudsman, questioned why they are necessary.
“What’s the harm in having these updates in a full council meeting?” he said.
Turner said the topics don’t rise to the level of full council discussion, and that the sessions are held in small groups instead of one-on-one for the sake of efficiency.
Councilman Rick Hansen, who often sides with Knutsen, said he’s gone to some sessions because he wants to ensure he gets all the information that other council members receive. Hansen said he’s not seen a consensus formed or votes taken at sessions he’s attended.
Sara Schilling: 253-552-7058 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/street