PRESS RELEASE: Team meetings of three members of the county council and the county administrator did not violate the Open Public Meetings Act, said Island County Superior Court Judge Alan R. Hancock.
The gatherings at issue occurred during 2011 and 2012 when a Critical Areas Ordinances (CAO) Team met to coordinate work that was coming to the council.
The CAO Team met without formal public notice several times in 2011 and 2012, but that practice stopped in April 2012 on the advice of Prosecuting Attorney Randall K. Gaylord. After Mr. Gaylord's advice all subcommittees of the county council have met with notice.
That advice was commended by the court, which recognized that it was "prudent" and "conservative" advice made with "an appropriate respect for caution and to protect the public interest and assure the validity of actions of the council."
In October 2012 a property rights group from Bellevue, Washington, the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights Legal Fund (CAPR), challenged the CAO Team meetings that occurred without notice claiming they violated the Open Public Meetings Act.
Another group, Common Sense Alliance, used the same arguments before the Growth Board in an effort to invalidate the CAO Ordinances.
"San Juan County has a reputation for a community process that encourages public involvement. Our county council operates in the open with many opportunities for public participation in the process of making its laws," said Gaylord. "We are pleased that Judge Hancock ruled the CAO Team meetings lawful."
Judge Hancock ruled that the Open Public Meetings Act is not violated when less than a majority (three of the six members) of the council were present at any meeting.
Judge Hancock wrote, "The court must follow the holdings of Washington appellate cases, and they all hold there is no meeting under the OPMA when less than a majority or quorum of the governing body gathers."
The court also ruled that the CAO Team was not authorized by the county council to act on its behalf, and did not conduct public hearings or take public testimony. CAPR's arguments, said the judge, were "circular reasoning" or "clearly wrong."
Also, the case for civil penalties against three council members - Patty Miller, Richard Fralick and Lovel Pratt - was also dismissed because none of them attended the CAO Team gatherings knowing they were acting in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act. The court recognized that individual council members had followed the prosecuting attorney's advice.
Judge Hancock declined to declare invalid the four Critical Areas Ordinances adopted in December 2012, as they were adopted in compliance with the Open Public Meetings laws. The court noted that there were hundreds of hours of public meetings on the ordinances and members of CAPR and other members of the public had “every opportunity” to make their statement or submit written comment.
Lastly, the court also noted that there was no legal basis to enjoin future violations, especially after considering the amendments to the county charter which reduced the council size from six to three members, and made all subcommittee meetings of the council subject to the Open Public Meetings Act.