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Councilman vows to press concerns on ad hoc committees
One Bainbridge Island councilman wants a more open and transparent government, something he says has been lacking in recent time.
Councilman Bob Scales wants the city council to slow down and re-evaluate its policies on ad hoc committees.
And he’s not the only one who has noticed the city’s lack of transparency on the topic.
State Auditor Brian Sonntag recently wrote a letter to the city expressing his concerns with the city’s compliance with the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. The issue was brought to his attention through a whistle blower complaint by former secretary/chief examiner of the Civil Service Commission Kim Hendrickson, though the complaint was denied due to lack of jurisdiction.
Scales brought up the letter in a recent council meeting, and while the council has yet to talk about the topic in depth, Scales wants to revive the discussion at the next study session to clarify the council’s policy on ad hoc committee matters.
Scales has been critical of the current ad hoc committee that’s in charge of the city manager search. Previously, he has said that he is uncomfortable with how the committee operates behind closed doors and later reports back to the council.
The way Scales sees it, an ad hoc committee should work the other way around, first taking its direction from the council as a whole and not acting independent from the council.
Sonntag’s letter cites previous communications with Tim Ford, the Attorney General’s open government ombudsman for the state. In emails sent to the city during the height of Hendrickson’s battle with its public meeting polices last October, Ford expressed that any committee acting on behalf of the council would most likely be subject to the open meetings law.
“His (Ford’s) feeling was you should always err on the side of assuming that things should be open,” Scales said. “Unless you have a good reason to have a closed meeting, they should be open.”
“I agree with that philosophy,” he added.
Scales said that there may be an argument over the fact that the ad hoc committees are comprised of only three council members, which is less than a quorum, a common trigger for conducting a meeting in public.
He pushed that argument aside, however, with the notion that despite not having a quorum, the current council committee practices may not meet the spirit of the Open Public Meetings Act.
The city’s governance manual states that an ad hoc committee has to document its work by submitting a form stating its purpose and a sunset date for its activities.
“I believe the expectation, when it was developed, was that the form would be completed and provided to council in the agenda packet whenever an ad hoc committee was being created,” said Morgan Smith, interim city manager.
“In practice, the creation of a committee sometimes happens in the course of a council discussion and is not anticipated in advance of the meeting,” she said.
The creation of an ad hoc committee during council discussion is not uncommon, though the question remains if the council is following proper procedure when they do so.
“This year I don’t believe any of the ad hoc committees have filled out the form at all,” Scales said. “Or they just form one on their own, like when Debbi (Lester) and Dave (Ward) formed a committee to hire Inslee Best, that was technically an ad hoc committee.”
With the breakdown of
ad hoc policy over the past year, there may be other loose ends to clean up.
“In the past year or so, the origin of many of the ad hoc committees was during the course of council discussion, so the form was not used to ‘introduce’ the decision to form a committee,” Smith said.
“At the discussion next week, I plan to work with council to identify which ad hoc committees they still prefer to keep, and if any were created without the introductory form, we will ask to have one developed for the sake of consistency,” she said.
From hiring outside legal council to the city manager search committee, Scales said something has to change.
There are two solutions, according to Scales. One would be to simply make any ad hoc committee meetings open to the public, as well as enforcing the rules to document the committee’s themselves.
The city should also provide public notice of the meetings, Scales said.
The second solution would be a change to standing council committees. In previous years, the council operated with standing committees — three council members assigned to a specific issue such as finance or public safety.
The standing committees would take the policies from the council’s business meetings and implement them according to their speciality, and then report back to the council as a whole.
Meetings of the council’s standing committees were noticed, documented and open to the public.
Currently the council has opted to operate through study sessions to accomplish the duties of the previous standing committees.