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Meetings law violation invalidates closed-door settlement

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Meetings law violation invalidates closed-door settlement

  • A real estate company’s claims against Spokane “must take a back seat to the public’s right to open government,” a U.S. appeals court ruled.

June 16, 2003 — The public’s right to open government means that a settlement agreement approved in secret by the Spokane, Wash., City Council is unenforceable, a U.S. Court of Appeals panel in Seattle (9th Cir.) ruled June 11.

During an executive session in 1998, the council unanimously agreed to settle developer Feature Realty, Inc.’s claims that the council wrongfully denied a permit needed for building. Under the settlement agreement, which involved hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money, the council and council members personally involved agreed to give public lands to the developer.

Nevada-based Feature Realty had appealed a U.S. district court’s ruling that the settlement was void under Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act. The law says actions not explicitly specified as an exception to the act must take place in public, or the actions are invalid. Although the law allows for private discussions with legal counsel about litigation, it does not allow for approval of a settlement in a closed session.

Feature Realty, which sought to enforce the settlement, asked the court not to apply the open meetings law because it unfairly allowed the council to use its open meetings violation as a method to disregard the costly settlement

But the appeals court said even the fairness argument doesn’t “provide an end-run around the state’s sunshine laws.”

“Feature Realty’s claims against the city must take a back seat to the public’s right to open government,” Appellate Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain wrote for a three-judge panel.

The opinion is a strong one, but in line with Washington law, said Stephen Eugster, an attorney and founder of the Spokane Research & Defense Fund. Eugster’s nonprofit organization had sued the city in state court, but later joined the lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the public.

“It says that the open meetings act is to be honored and that the court can’t make decisions to get around it,” Eugster said of decision. “The point of the Washington act is that if a government action is to be taken at an open public meeting it has to be taken at an open public meeting.”

(Feature Realty, Inc. v. City of Spokane) KH


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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