The Langley City Council appears to have violated the Open Public Meeting Act (OPMA) at a recent workshop meeting.
One of the OPMA’s four requirements for special meetings — posting notice of the meeting at city hall — was not met 24 hours before the Jan. 26 workshop. City Clerk/Treasurer Debbie Mahler wrote in an email to Langley resident David Price Thursday that the city “did not do the outside postings this time.”
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said Mahler’s admission indicates a breach of state laws.
“If this was a special meeting and the notice wasn’t posted at city hall, and they admit they didn’t post it, then that’s a violation for sure,” Nixon wrote in an email. “It would be hard to prove they didn’t post the notice if nobody checked, but if they admit no notice was posted, well, then, the job is done.”
Mahler said Friday morning that she sent the notice of the meeting to a staff member for posting, but there was “an apparent misunderstanding.”
“We have a very high workload and a very limited staff,” Mahler said. “We are human and humans sometimes make mistakes.
Any actions taken at an illegal meeting are null, according to RCW 42.030.060. Mayor Tim Callison, however, said no votes or actions were taken at the workshop to discuss the process and policies of tourism funding.
He did not acknowledge whether the city violated state laws.
“I would have to spend time looking into the matter,” Callison said. “I don’t think it’s worth my time.”
Asked to elaborate, Callison said the meeting did not rise above the discussion level. He added that if the city did drop the ball, it will create safeguards to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“We try our best to follow the law and do the informational postings on all things,” Callison said. “We’re a small staff. If there was a mistake than I apologize on behalf of the city. We’re humans and we work processes and sometimes things don’t work the way they’re supposed to. There was no intention of keeping it a secret.”
Nixon said a violation, which could result in a $500 fine for each public official under state statute, can only be enforced if a lawsuit is filed.
The workshop was originally scheduled at the council’s regular monthly meeting Jan. 16.
All four of the council members who attended the workshop — Christy Korrow, Peter Morton, Ursula Shoudy and Dominique Emerson — said they were unaware the city did not post the meeting at city hall; Councilman Bruce Allen was not present.
They are also unified in their belief that the city did not intend to deceive the public and that state laws should be followed.
“It’s obvious that we all agree that we need to be in compliance,” Korrow said. “It’s a state law. There is no gray area.”
Langley resident David Price, a First Street business owner, attended the meeting. He’s been a vocal critic of the city’s public process and voiced displeasure with what he saw to be a lack of community involvement in discussions about changing parking from angled to parallel on First Street.
Price said it was important the public attended because the tourism fund is a “pretty large discretionary fund” without a committee overseeing how it is allocated.
“There’s a lot of people who think that the way that money is distributed is not fair and that different groups are held to a different standard,” Price said.
Korrow and Emerson said the council discussed the idea of creating an ad hoc committee that would set criteria for how funds are distributed at the workshop.
Price claims only two organizations, the Langley Chamber of Commerce and Langley Main Street Association, were informed of the meeting. He says both have a stake in how the funding is allocated, but argued that those “whose livelihoods are tied to the tourist industry” should also have been properly notified.
The meeting’s time and date was not on the city’s website the day of the meeting, Jan. 26. Mahler said the notice was posted, but that it disappeared from the website which has a history of malfunctioning. She added the city does not have one employee who post to the website, but several who have other responsibilities as well.
Price said he wants to ensure all future council, committee and citizen board meetings are open to the public and comply with the OPMA.
Mahler reiterated that nothing about the mishap was nefarious.
“The meeting wasn’t hidden,” Mahler wrote. “We made an error and did not get it posted outside, but obviously people knew about it. The person who is complaining knew about the meeting and was present for it. Most of the entities that provide tourism services for Langley were present at the meeting and the council took no action at the workshop. This really is not some big scandal.”