Closed-door sessions are out of hand

"They're talking about the law, but you're not invited.At 5 p.m. this evening, the Bainbridge Island City Council and Bainbridge Planning Commission will meet in a joint executive session, or closed-door discussion, in the Bainbridge Commons."

  • Wednesday, March 22, 2000 12:00pm
  • News

“They’re talking about the law, but you’re not invited.At 5 p.m. this evening, the Bainbridge Island City Council and Bainbridge Planning Commission will meet in a joint executive session, or closed-door discussion, in the Bainbridge Commons. An attorney from the city’s insurance pool will present a program that’s being billed as land use law, liability and litigation, onstensibly a legal primer to explain the perils facing public policy makers in these lawsuit-happy times.The reason for the seminar, city officials say, is that five of the seven council members haven’t been through such training, the last such session (held in open session) having been given about five years ago. The reason for the closed doors: real and current legal cases, city officials insist, will be used to illustrate the presentation.I want (participants) to be able to ask blunt questions and get frank answers, city Administrator Lynn Nordby told us this week.Harumph. Sounds like boot-strapping to us. In fact, this training session flirts with impropriety and illegality, and we’re offended that the administration and council are willing to be a party to it. Why? Briefly, elected bodies like the city council are subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act, which you can find discussed in RCW 42.30. Under the act, agencies are allowed to meet in executive session to discuss basically three topics:* Personnel matters* Property acquisition* LitigationThe first exemption is intended to shield legally protected personnel records and complaints from public view; the second protects the public interest by preventing land speculation and inflated prices when a city considers a property purchase.The third – that’s where it gets tricky, as this training session illustrates. The administration insists that this city or others could be legally compromised by public disclosure of the topics to be discussed. But there is no way under state law that the entirety of a two-hour seminar on general legal concepts is exempt from public participation and view.First, we find it hard to believe that anyone is going to be discussing specific litigation to which this city is a party – not with planning commission members present. Second, any lawsuits that have been filed in other jurisdictions are already a matter of public record. And if the presenter starts disclosing the confidential facts and strategies of other cases with which he is involved, we dare say he is breaching the privilege of his other clients. Why, then, the closed doors?Why indeed. Frankly, we are growing increasingly chagrined by this administration and council’s recent move toward secrecy – holding routine executive sessions on flimsy pretexts, as a way of avoiding potentially embarrassing discussions before the gallery. Tonight’s session affronts openness, accountability and democracy itself by trying to shield city affairs from the eyes of the public. The unfortunate irony here is that such a session would be extremely enlightening to the public, and would help all island citizens better understand how the system works.If the council wants legal advice that pertains to this city, fine. Close the doors for 15 minutes and discuss those issues by themselves. But this two-hour session is outrageous, and itself dares legal challenge.We call on any council members or planning commissioners opposed to secret government to boycott this closed meeting.”

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