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Citizens can be excluded from council session when no vote is taken

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON         Freedom of Information         Sep 13, 2001    

Citizens can be excluded from council session when no vote is taken

  • Judges say Lakewood City Council properly barred the public from an executive session in which its members decided with counsel to join in a lawsuit at taxpayers’ expense.

The Washington Supreme Court in a 6-2 decision agreed with a lower court ruling that seven members of Lakewood City Council did not violate the state’s Open Public Meetings Act when they secretly decided to use city resources to join in litigation against a citizen-sponsored initiative.

In a one-page opinion dated Sept. 6, the court held that the Lakewood council rightfully barred the public from an executive session where its members discussed pending litigation with an attorney, since the matters were ‘benign’ and would not likely result in adverse consequences. The court also dismissed a recall petition against the council members.

One dissenting judge strongly rebuked the majority’s viewpoint in a nine-page opinion, arguing that the majority erred in its application of the meetings law.

The case stems from a 1999 citizen initiative, Initiative 695, designed to reduce automobile license fees and to require public votes on future tax or fee increases. Later that year, two Washington cities challenged the constitutionality of the voter-approval clause.

Lakewood City Manager Scott Rohlfs asked the city join the litigation. The council and Rohlfs met with City Attorney Daniel Heid on Dec. 13, 1999, behind closed doors. By the end of the session, Rohlfs had enough support from the council to join the lawsuit.

Several citizens challenged the council members’ decision, calling it an illegal vote. Some also petitioned for the recall of the council members.

But the Washington Supreme Court agreed with a June 2000 trial court ruling that the petitioners failed to show a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act. The court held that mere discussion with counsel about litigation on its face did not amount to a violation, and the petitioners failed to present substantial evidence that an actual vote took place.

The court concluded that adverse consequences could have resulted if the public had knowledge of the closed-meeting discussions.

(In re The Recall of Lakewood City Council Members; Pro Se; Joseph F. Quinn, Takoma, Wash.) MM


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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