Tacoma council needs to err on side of transparency

The News TribuneMarch 6, 2014 

We’re getting a little tired of writing this editorial – the one dinging public officials for conducting business in secret that by law should be open to citizen oversight.

In many cases, the officials involved probably didn’t know better. But in this one, they should have: A very similar situation happened four years ago involving some of the same officials – three members of the Tacoma City Council.

In 2010, the council violated the Open Public Meetings Act when narrowing a field of applicants for two vacant council seats behind closed doors. On the council then were the city’s new mayor, Marilyn Strickland, and two newly elected councilmen, Joe Lonergan and Marty Campbell.

Fast forward to December 2013, when those three were among four council members involved with coming up with a list of finalists for six openings on Tacoma’s charter review committee. (The other nine positions were filled by appointment, with each council member getting a choice and Strickland choosing the chairman.)

Again it looks as though the open meetings law has been circumvented in the selection of the final six committee members.

In this case, a four-person council subcommittee chaired by Lonergan whittled down a roster of 43 charter review applicants to 14 finalists. Three members – Strickland, Campbell and Councilman Robert Thoms (a council member since January 2013) – emailed their top choices to Lonergan. Thoms and Campbell also talked with Lonergan about their choices by telephone.

Open government experts say the subcommittee might have violated state law by, essentially, conducting a secret vote via email and holding a “serial meeting” by discussing their choices in subsequent phone calls.

Lonergan says he believed the emails were not secret because they are considered public documents, which citizens can request to read. We don’t doubt his sincerity, but given the council’s previous problem with secrecy regarding vacancies, it would have been better to err on the side of transparency.

Behind-the-scenes action to shorten a long list of applicants is exactly what happened back in 2010 when Campbell and Lonergan were fresh faces on the City Council and Strickland was the new mayor (she had previously been a council member).

The News Tribune sued the city over the selection process, and a Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled that the city likely violated state law. The city had to pay the newspaper’s legal fees.

Memories of that imbroglio should not have faded away. Now anybody disgruntled with the City Council’s final choices for the charter review committee could challenge them in court, and that could cancel out the selection process.

The subcommittee’s time-saving shortcuts could end up costing a lot more if the selection process has to be repeated in an open setting. The charter review committee has already started meeting; would it have to start all over again?

If that happens, there could be one positive side effect: It might finally get council members’ attention regarding the public’s right to scrutinize in real time how vacancies are filled.

The charter review committee is charged with an important mission: to study the city charter and make recommendations for changes on issues that could include the city’s form of government and the independence of its public utility. One change the council could make right now is to ensure that its proceedings are more open to the public that elected it.

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