I’m more likely to attend a government meeting when someone announces that it will be closed to the public.
Like earlier this week when a working group of the Pierce County Council was planning to meet in secret with county Sheriff Paul Pastor. There seemed to be no reason to close it except that the three council members wanted to have a frank discussion with Pastor about rising jail overtime costs and delays in hiring new street deputies.
I agree that it would be easier, and maybe more productive, to talk with Pastor in secret. But democracy isn’t supposed to be easy or convenient for the elected officials. It is supposed to be available for the residents and taxpayers to watch.
Oftentimes, those residents and taxpayers are busy, so we watch for them.
I showed up a few minutes before the meeting was to start. 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 of interest to the public. Pastor has blamed the increased overtime on more mentally ill inmates at the jail. Council members say residents are demanding more street deputies.
Councilmen Roger Bush and Dan Roach both said they thought the meeting could be closed because its three members make up less than a quorum of the seven-member council. It should be closed, Bush said, to foster communication between the council and sheriff.
Before I left, I asked the third task force member, Rick Talbert, if he thought the meeting should be closed. He didn’t and left in protest.
The size of the work group, appointed by council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald, appears designed so as not to trigger the open meetings requirement. Roach’s regular committee – Public Safety and Human Services, which is subject to open meetings rules – already covers the subject matter assigned to the work group. Roach said that committee meets quarterly with the sheriff, and he thought more frequent and less formal meetings would be helpful.
Later, in a phone conversation, Roach said he thought an open meeting would not be productive, comparing it to a reality TV show in which everyone starts acting for the cameras.
Free from such temptations, Roach said Pastor explained the difficulties in hiring qualified deputies. And the sheriff told the council members 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 and that Pastor left the meeting more comfortable with committing to new hires.
All that could have been said in an open meeting. And the council members are misinformed if they think they can form a smaller group and escape requirements of openness. The state open meetings law covers the council as a whole as well as “any committee thereof when the committee acts on behalf of the governing body, conducts hearings, or takes testimony or public comment.” A quorum of such a subgroup is a majority of the members of the subgroup, not a majority of the entire council.
Tim Ford, the open government ombudsman for the State Attorney General’s Office, said the courts have applied a four-part test to determine whether a subgroup is covered by open meetings and open records laws. The so-called Telford test asks, 1) whether the group performs a government function, 2) what is the level of government funding, 3) what is the extent of government involvement, and 4) whether it was created by the government.
The task force was created by the chair of the council, and it has a function of meeting with the sheriff and working out conflicts over the budget. Roach said he will report back to the entire council and that he and Bush were able to reassure Pastor as to the council’s intentions toward his budget.
“Using the Telford test, it sounds like they are covered, and the meeting should have been open,” Ford email@example.com 253-597-8657 blog.thenewstribune.com/politics