It appears discussions about city business at a social club were between only two Langley City Council members and not a quorum. It is also seems the conversations largely pertained to the highly controversial sanctuary city topic.
Councilwoman Dominique Emerson this week clarified comments she made at a Monday council meeting, saying only she and Councilman Bruce Allen discussed city business at the Holmes Harbor Rod and Gun Club. Similarly, Allen said the discussions didn’t include two city council members who are also members at the club, Ursula Shoudy and Burt Beusch, and that discussions between he and Emerson were merely small talk and that consensuses were never reached.
Allen and Emerson also said that Shoudy, who works for the Holmes Harbor Rod and Gun Club, was not in the vicinity of their discussions.
“She was always working,” Emerson said. “She was a waitress. She didn’t hang around. She took our order and would go.”
Emerson also added that she stopped going to the club before Beusch was appointed to the council in June.
Allen admitted at Monday night’s council meeting that city business had been discussed at the social club in the past. He initially said no city business was ever discussed, but reverted when Emerson claimed the contrary. Allen said the sanctuary city topic came up a couple of times and that the conversations were mostly remarks about “how long it took to get past it” and opinions were never expressed.
“The place is a social club,” Allen said. “It’s not a place where you do business or create an issue.”
He also said the conversations weren’t exclusive to just he and Emerson, and that it often extended to a dozen or more members of the club.
“It took an inordinate amount of time to get past that,” Allen said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. “I know we talked about that, not just the city council, but everybody at the table.”
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said the situation is complex. He said a quorum on a five-member board like the Langley council is three people, so a conversation between two can’t be a violation no matter where the discussion took place. But it’s not always so simple. A “serial” violation can also occur, for example, if a council member talks to another member and then discusses what they talked about with a third council member.
He also said that it can be considered a violation if a third council member is present and in the vicinity of the discussions. At the same time, it can be argued that Shoudy never actively participated in the conversations because she was working as a waitress, Nixon said.
He believes errors like this are helpful reminders for public officials.
“I think it’s worth calling attention to it and shining a light on it and reminding them to be careful that the public is supposed to be able to observe their discussions,” Nixon said.
Nixon is on the Kirkland City Council. He said that whenever he sees a fellow city council member while attending events at places like the Kirkland Chamber of Commerce, they intentionally sit on opposite sides of the table to avoid even the possibility of accidentally breaching open public meeting laws.
“It does take that commitment to remember that you’re not supposed to be discussing city business,” Nixon said. “It’s so easy to slide into it without thinking about it. So, you have to be diligent.”
Mayor Tim Callison confirmed on Friday morning that he’s requested the Langley Ethics Training and Advisory Board determine if there is an ethics violation “as a result of the city council members violating the Open Meeting Act (sic) by frequently gathering at the Holmes Harbor Rod and Gun Club.”
Bob Frause, chairman of the Langley Ethics and Training Advisory Board, said the ethics board is meeting on Monday to discuss whether or not to move forward with an opinion. Frause declined to speculate on the likelihood of the advisory opinion moving forward.
“It’s kind of a delicate situation,” Frause said. “The board makes a decision together. I don’t want to speculate.”
He also said that a refresher in open public meeting laws during future training sessions will be helpful moving forward.
“You can’t have too much ethics,” Frause said. “That’s my point of view.”
A similar instance last year in which former councilwoman Rene Neff answered a question about the sanctuary city topic at a community meeting while in the presence of two other council members became the topic of scrutiny by proposal critics. It was also the subject of the ethics board’s second advisory opinion, following a complaint by the police chief and Callison.
The board’s decision determined the illegal quorum was unintentional, but that they failed to immediately resolve the situation.
Frause said they’d like to reaffirm the fact that city business cannot be discussed “off the table.” He also added that the ethics board may use the events that transpired at Monday night’s meeting as an example in future advisory opinions, which will later be compiled in an ethics library that will be posted to the website.
Allen also said a refresher in the rules wouldn’t hurt, but he maintained that details and opinions were never discussed at the club.
“I understand the transparency part of that crap,” Allen said. “But, people rush to judgment on stuff like this. There’s no reason to do that. The city council is pretty above board. We’re very careful about what happens.”
Emerson said at Monday night’s meeting that she stopped attending the Holmes Harbor Rod and Gun Club because city business was being discussed. Another factor was also at play. She said in a phone interview Thursday morning that she was “verbally attacked” by members of the club for her views on the sanctuary city topic and that she was no longer welcomed at the club.
“It was a terrible, terrible experience,” Emerson said.
Allen corroborated Emerson’s story.
“There was a conversation between a couple of them out there,” Allen said. “…That didn’t sit well with her.”
Callison said in an email Thursday afternoon that future training meetings for the city council, citizen committees and city staff are upcoming and will focus on both ethical behavior and conforming with the Open Public Meetings Act.
Frause said the ethics board has previously provided two training sessions per year, but thought that it wouldn’t hurt to bump up that number.
“We may rethink that,” Frause said.