Keeping the Public’s Business Public

In the newsroom we place considerable importance on the maintenance of public meetings laws. Our watchdog role, after all, includes publishing the rather mundane weekly schedule of those meetings and having reporters sit in to listen and report on our elected officials’ decisions. So we’re sensitive, and take it seriously, to any time public servants meet in an unannounced group — or even when there’s any perception that the public’s business is taking place behind closed doors.

Two situations this week highlighted those laws to us, and I hope can showcase the extent our journalists go to pay attention and uphold the responsibility I mention above. The situations here don’t border on illegality — quite the opposite in one case — so don’t read this as an accusation. This explanation is to provide some insight on an issue we consider vital in a functioning democracy.

With that said…

Wednesday morning Kitsap County issued notice of a special meeting, giving a legally-required 24-hour advance that it would be open to the public. Hours later at the commissioners’ work session, where Sun reporter Chris Dunagan was in attendance, they previewed the meeting between commissioner Josh Brown and the Port of Bremerton commissioners to discuss transit planning. South Kitsap Commissioner Charlotte Garrido said she wanted to be there, with all commissioners acknowledging that her attendance would make the meeting public.

The county had noticed a meeting before it even knew the session would be public, in other words. That’s pretty proactive in following the letter of the law. Commissioner Steve Bauer also made the point that any “candid” conversation should not be withheld because a reporter may be in attendance. (As one was, if you read Ed Friedrich’s story from that meeting.) You could call that pretty proactive in following the spirit of the law. Both actions are the type we like, the law likes, and you should like too.

Now, the other example.

At least a week ago reporter Chris Henry was told about a meeting between a few elected officials to discuss county annexation policy, specifically learning from revenue-sharing issues that came up during Port Orchard’s annexation of McCormick Woods. She blogged about it, indicating the meeting was not public. But this week Port Orchard Mayor Lary Coppola told Chris he’d be fine if she was in attendance, with the caveat that he did not call the meeting and did not have final say on whether media would be welcome. Mary McClure, executive director of the Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council, was heading the meeting up, and therefore held the final say on the invite list.

The meeting was also to include three two Port Orchard council members, three county DCD employees and County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido. No quorum of any public body, but still a number of elected officials talking about something that is important to Port Orchard in the near-term, and eventually will be to the whole county.

Chris Henry was scheduled to be off Thursday, so the tip was passed to Brynn Grimley, who has covered the Silverdale incorporation issue for us. Brynn planned her day to be at the City Hall county offices in Port Orchard by 9 a.m., with the understanding that, based on Coppola’s offer and the fact that this was an issue that had been discussed publicly, those in attendance were unlikely to object to her presence when things got going. The city of Port Orchard, following up on Coppola’s offer, attempted to contact McClure Wednesday to let her know we had expressed interest in a Sun reporter attending.

McClure didn’t respond to the city’s email on Wednesday, but did call our offices early Thursday repeatedly trying to reach Brynn. Her attempt was done as a courtesy so that Brynn didn’t spend time showing up for something a reporter, legally, was not entitled to attend.

Brynn didn’t get those messages, which were left from 7 a.m. until 8:30 or so, and arrived at the county offices to learn McClure’s opinion. Brynn headed back to the Sun office. While frustrated to have planned on covering a meeting and then having the door shut, she understood and respected the decision. Brynn spent a few hours on other tasks and then called around to interview those who were at the meeting.

Everyone seemed candid about what transpired, with accounts that matched up with one another’s, and Brynn was able to report and write a story we believe to be accurate without actually sitting in on the session. Again, nothing improper was done by anyone involved, and all were cooperative following the session. McClure explained that she had not been given time to notice the others that a reporter may be in attendance and didn’t want them surprised, which can happen when someone with a pen and paper — or laptop and videocamera, these days — shows up unannounced. McClure also told Brynn on Thursday that, in her judgment, she wanted the meeting participants to be “sincere” in their comments, and wasn’t sure that would be possible with an “audience” present. That’s the same issue Steve Bauer raised with the commissioners, with a different interpretation.

This isn’t meant to sound like sour grapes, nor to discount the need to do some public negotiation in private. We still got the story, albeit a version based on post-meeting interviews, after several phone calls. McClure did not violate any public meetings laws with her request, and Brynn squared away any miscommunication that had transpired about who had capacity to issue invitations and who should have been asked up front.

Still — and here’s the point — when a reporter is told he or she can’t attend a meeting that doesn’t seem to step into the bounds of executive privilege or sensitive negotiations, it raises the antennae in our newsroom. When we see an attendee list that looks like a quorum, our eyebrows rise. And when we observe a public body abiding by the rules in place and openly talking about the consequences, as the county commissioners did this week and do on a routine basis to remain transparent, trust is built. We like to think those are good natural reactions.

But I also point this week’s episodes out as a reminder for politicians about how strongly we feel about those meeting laws and how should we expect them to speak candidly to one another no matter the venue. Also, it’s hopefully a sign to readers that, day in and day out, we intend to continue as the eyes and ears for the community. Last, it may be interesting for the layperson to note the procedural difference between an open meeting and what allows talks to go on in secret — in the case of the transportation discussion Thursday, one county commissioner’s attendance, and in the other meeting, the lack of a quorum of Port Orchard City Council by just one.

If you’re interested in learning more about public meetings law, the state website is here.

Maybe this is all just my way to stress that the more we are aware of that public process, with the full understanding of the laws on public meetings and transparent elected officials heeding those rules, the better off we all are. Sometimes we all need that reminder.

— David Nelson

6 thoughts on “Keeping the Public’s Business Public

  1. I would take your protestations a bit more seriously if when your reporters are supplied information residents cull from Public Disclosure Requests that contradict articles written as fact, not opinion and do nothing to retract inaccuracies printed in The Sun. Nice try pretending to be on the high road of providing accurate information.

  2. Jane —
    If sending over that shot is what you took from my explanation of a few public meetings, so be it. But if there’s a particular article you’re holding on to and want to discuss, and it sounds like there is, send me an email with some explanation, and the documents if you have them, so I know what you’re getting at. That’s what we ask everyone to do if they see errors in the paper.

    -David

  3. David,
    For several years your paper in both articles stated as fact and opinion pieces have lead the public to believe that the Bremerton Ferry tunnel was fully paid for by other than local funding (City of Bremerton) sources. I have provided your staff with records obtained by Public Disclosure Requests that clearly prove otherwise. Your staff have attended public meetings where even a five year old child would understand that local funds were being spent yet the Kitsap Sun continues with the spreading inaccurate information. It is very difficult to think you are not part of the problem instead of supplying facts and letting the readers decide their own opinion.

  4. They’re doing the public’s business but they’re not able to be “sincere” with the public watching.

    How about you follow up with an informative article about the KRCC: who are they, what do they do, how are they funded and by what mechanism they can call together our elected officials and shut the door to those, supposedly, being represented.

  5. Thanks David . Quite interesting but I am not understanding the main aspects of the dos and the don’t have to dos of the public meeting laws.

    Basically when does a reporter have to be allowed and when can one be kept out ?

  6. Mick —
    Basically when elected officials have a quorum gathered, or enough members together to take a vote, and discuss public business. And that doesn’t apply to reporters, it applies for any member of the public. They’ve got to provide 24-hour notice, and even have to notice if they plan to go into an executive session that is exempt from being a public meeting.

    The law strictly applies to when the agency’s business is being discussed, though there’s some gray area there. The commissioners or a voting block from a city council could show up at a restaurant and sit together, though that doesn’t always look good, and the temptation to talk shop at such a meeting certainly would exist. Our most recent example was the NK School Board doing just that, at Tizley’s in Poulsbo, following public meetings in October 2008.

    Here’s what one public records attorney told Derek Sheppard at the time: “the point of the Open Meetings Act is so that the public has the opportunity to witness the full chain of discussion, deliberation and shared thought that contribute to government decisions.”

    Here’s the story: http://www.kitsapsun.com/news/2008/oct/08/does-meeting-end-when-nk-board-members-head-to/

    -David

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