With Christmas coming up in two days, how many folks are
thinking about sewers? Or tap water?
If you have guests coming for the holiday, perhaps you’re hoping
your pipes will handle the pressure — those extra showers and
dishwasher cycles, those extra loads of laundry and loads of other
But most of the time, be honest, who really thinks about sewer
and water, at least until you get your bill.
Speaking of sewer and water bills,
Port Orchard’s rates for these utilities could double over the
next five years, if the City Council takes the recommendation of a
utilities finance expert, as we reported in Monday’s Kitsap
The city’s utility committee has been working since May with
consultant Katy Isaksen to calculate what it would take to bridge
the “gap” between revenue from ratepayers and the actual cost to
provide sewer and water services. The city also needs to do some
major upgrades to both systems, according to the public works
department. Those costs are built into Isaksen’s recommended
scenario under which the average sewer-water customer would see
their bill rise from about $100 in 2015 to more than $230 in
Notice how the formal presentation on Isaksen’s recommendation
came after months of looking at the details and revising estimates
in committee meetings. It’s no stretch to say committee meetings
are where the heavy lifting of city government gets done. And the
public is always welcome to attend.
One city resident who does pay close attention to utilities is
Elissa Whittleton. She tries to attend most utility committee
meetings and, in a Facebook post a couple of weeks ago she
complained about a new (as of October) disclaimer at the bottom of
the agenda stating,
“PLEASE NOTE: UTILITY COMMITTEE PACKET MATERIALS PROVIDED TO
COMMITTEE MEMBERS AND CITY STAFF ONLY. NOT TO BE DISTRIBUTED TO
GENERAL PUBLIC UNLESS OBTAINED THROUGH
PUBLIC RECORDS REQUEST PROCEDURE.”
I, like Elissa, did a “Say what?” about this, since materials
for city council meetings are readily provided through links on the
online agenda and by request as hard copy.
City Clerk Brandy Rinearson had an explanation. The bottom line
is, you can get the materials (with a formal request), but some
materials (of the kind most likely to be distributed at committee
meetings) are exempted from disclosure, and like all public
records, committee materials are subject to redaction.
What does all this mean?
First of all, Rinearson said, committee meetings are different
from regular council meetings in that they don’t constitute a
quorum of council members. Under the state’s Open Public Meetings
Act, any meeting of elected officials where there is a quorum (down
to your tiniest water district) must be publicly noticed and
materials cited at the meeting must be readily available to the
Why does this matter?
While committee members can hammer out policy and develop
recommendations on actions the council might take at one of its
meetings, they can’t take formal action. The council, on the other
hand, can act on the basis of information in reports and other
documents complied into a “council packet” that is often more than
100 pages long.
Don’t be daunted by that. If you are interested in a particular
agenda item — as I was by the consultant’s report on the sewer and
water “gap” — you can simply download it from the city’s website or
ask for that part of the packet.
I had always assumed one could just as easily get materials from
committee meeting packets and until recently they could.
What changed all that?
Starting around late summer, early fall, the utility committee
was knee deep in discussion of stormwater rates. The owners of a
B&B, who had concerns about how the proposed rate assessment
would affect them, made a request for committee materials.
Rinearson, as city clerk, was pulled in on the request, which
included the couple’s earlier stormwater utility bills.
Under state public records law, private information like
addresses, phone numbers, account numbers, social security numbers
and the like must be redacted (whited out so no one can read them).
Another type of information requiring redaction would be an
attorney’s advice to the city, protected under client-attorney
So Rinearson realized that, even though the couple was
requesting their own utility bill as part of the committee packet,
technically, their privacy rights would be violated under public
records laws. Rinearson told public works and other staff answering
to the committee to direct any requests for packets through her as
formal public records requests.
Public records is hot topic in the city of Port Orchard, what
with the city of Bainbridge Island’s recent $500,00 settlement of a
public records lawsuit.
Let’s now clarify that a formal records request to the city of
Port Orchard can come in pretty much any form: via email, in
writing and via a phone call to the city clerk’s office.
But wait, there’s more.
Some “preliminary materials” (discussed at any kind of meeting)
are exempt from disclosure under the OPM, Brandy said, citing
42.56.280. After reading the law and talking with Brandy, I’d
describe these as documents descriptive of works in progress. But
note the exemption for any that are directly linked to a formal
Exempt documents include, “Preliminary drafts, notes,
recommendations, and intra-agency memorandums in which opinions are
expressed or policies formulated or recommended are exempt under
this chapter, except that a specific record is not exempt when
publicly cited by an agency in connection with any agency
As an example of preliminary documents, note that the estimated
increase in sewer rates was much higher at first, when Isaksen
included all capital projects on the city’s list. Committee members
asked her to revise the estimates factoring in just the most
pressing sewer and water projects.
I asked Rinearson if the RCW isn’t subject to interpretation. It
is, she said. In her training as the public records official for
the city, Rinearson learned about a four-part test — based on a
case reviewed by the Washington State Court of Appeals — which she
and other city officials now use to weigh whether a record is
subject to disclosure.
Records that meet the four-part test could be withheld,
according to Rinearson. The test points are:
One — The records contain pre-decision opinions or recommendations
expressed as part of the deliberative process.
Two — Disclosure would be harmful to the deliberative process or
consultative function of the process.
Three — Disclosure would interfere with the flow of
recommendations, observations, and opinions.
Four — The records reflect policy recommendations and opinions and
are not simply the raw factual data underlying a decision.
Two and three seem subjective to me, which I pointed out to
Rinearson. She affirmed that her department’s decision to withhold
documents is always open to a legal challenge.
According to Rinearson, more than 95 percent of records
requested are readily available without redaction.
Now once more with feeling, Port Orchard’s committee materials
are available are available with a records request to the city
clerk, email@example.com, or by calling (360)
If you actually made it all the way through this post,
congratulations; email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will add you
to my unofficial list of local government nerds.
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