Public meeting law violation? Council discussed city business at a social club, councilman says

A Langley city councilman on Monday admitted that he and other members of the council had in the past discussed city business while at a social club, a potential breach of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Councilman Bruce Allen made the admission after he was called out by another council member for making what she characterized as false statements. He’d been in the process of rebuking claims in a recent letter to the editor, saying that city business had never been discussed at the Holmes Harbor Rod and Gun Club, an organization of which four of the five council members are members.

“I object to that because that’s not true,” Councilwoman Dominique Emerson interrupted.

Allen responded by saying, “There was a time that we went out there that we did talk.”

A few minutes prior, Allen emphatically denied that city business had ever been discussed at the club.

“I’m going to declare right now that we go out there every Friday and we do not discuss business,” Allen said.

After objecting to Allen’s claim, she added that the discussions were why she “stopped going” to the club.

Open meeting laws do allow multiple public officials to gather in quorums at social clubs and functions, but they are prohibited from discussing any city business that may come up for a vote.

According to RCW 42.30.010, the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, deliberations by public officials are supposed to be conducted openly. It goes on to say that the public does “not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

Conflicts of interest and transparency was the subject of an earlier discussion at the start of the meeting. Mayor Tim Callison announced that a “directive” is to be read at the start of city council and citizen committee meetings to prevent potential conflicts of interests. The directive clarifies that the city council or citizen committee members are obligated to withdraw from involvement “in a matter where there’s a conflict or a perceived conflict, even if they feel certain that they can act impartial.”

The expectation is that public officials will declare at meetings if there are any “apparent, personal or financial” conflict of interest pertaining to any ordinance, resolution, contract, preceding or action pending that is before the city. If there is a conflict of interest, they are obligated to withdraw themselves from the discussion for its duration.

“It’s a statement directly out of our ordinances regarding ethics,” Callison said. “It’s important today, as things are becoming more and more busy around Langley and more matters are being reviewed by both you and city staff and also, of course, the citizen advisory committees to make sure that it’s important and in front of people’s minds.”

Callison provided the example of former city councilwoman Rene Neff, who he said advocated for city funding for the Island Shakespeare Festival when she was also a member of the body’s board.

“She shouldn’t have done that,” Callison said.

In order to drive home the point, the city council and mayor took turns stating that they would not discuss city business while attending a candidate forum on Oct. 17 at the Langley United Methodist Church.

The city does have an ethics board and its chairman, Bob Frause, was present at the meeting. Frause discussed the rules pertaining to conflicts of interest and transparency, which generated some confusion. Allen questioned whether he needs to announce that he will not discuss city business whenever he’s at the Holmes Harbor Rod and Gun Club.

“Do I need to declare that every time?” Allen asked.

Frause said that the law does not prevent public officials from going to social gatherings, such as those at the club, so long as they are not discussing city business. He said declaring on record at city council meetings that city business will not be discussed at private functions is also helpful.

“Ethically, I think if you’re honest and open about it, you’re doing the right thing,” Frause said.

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