At last night's drawn-out meeting of the Bellevue City Council, at which the council voted 4-3 to support the southern portion of freshman council member Kevin Wallace's so-called "Vision Line": The three council members in the minority accused the four-member majority of violating the state's Open Public Meetings Act by negotiating the language of the council's letter to Sound Transit in private meetings by phone and email. (The majority supports running the southern segment of Bellevue light rail to the east of Sound Transit's preferred alignment, bypassing a popular park-and-ride and avoiding the residential and job center of downtown Bellevue; the minority supports Sound Transit's alignment through the park-and-ride and downtown).
The discussions got pretty complicated (and heated), but essentially, the accusations boiled down to this: By drafting a letter to Sound Transit over phone and emails without input from the other three council members, the four-member majority, which constitutes a quorum of the city council, was essentially doing city business in private, which the public records act forbids.
Council member Claudia Balducci, who represents Bellevue on the Sound Transit board, said she felt "ambushed" by her colleagues' decision to bring the letter expressing the council's preferred alignment, which she hadn't seen before last night, to an immediate vote. "We can change our minds as a council ... but we need to start being more transparent about what we're doing," Balducci said. "We owe that to the people that we represent and I just don't think we're living up to that right now ... with five letters [expressing a preferred alignment] in two days. And the last one's being developed at 5:30 pm," just prior to the council meeting.
Freshman council member Jennifer Robertson, a member of the pro-Wallace council majority, argued that the majority's discussions didn't violate the meetings act because they didn't involve a vote. "Council member Wallace just wanted to share with us what he'd written," Robertson said. "There was no action, there was no decision." (Robertson has not returned a call to her cell phone for comment).
In response, council member John Chelminiak, a member of the pro-Sound Transit minority, suggested that Robertson "read the Open Public Meetings Act. What you just described there is a blatant violation" of the Act, he said. "The Open Public Meetings Act is not about taking action. You cannot have a rolling meeting. ... You can't have a debate outside the realm of the public, and it seems clear from this discussion that that has occurred. I'm very bothered by it and I want it to stop. Period."
Contacted after the meeting, Chelminiak said he had planned to stay out of the debate over the letter expressing the council's preference, but that when Robertson claimed the four members hadn't had a "meeting ... that just got me," and he had to say something. "It really clear that we were not part of ... the discussions back and forth" about the letter, which Chelminiak characterized as far more combative than the original letter drafted by council staff. "That ends up constituting the beginning of making policy in private when it should be done publicly, and with all seven council members."
Balducci, also contacted after the meeting, said she objected to the letter because the council majority presented it "as the position the city was taking and we were told we could start from that point," and because it was "aggressive in tone and included quite a few statements that were either unsupported by fact or were flat-out statements of opinion."
According to the state's assistant attorney general for government accountability, Tim Ford, email and phone conversations can count as meetings if they involve discussion of official business. Although Ford can't provide legal opinions on particular cases, in general, he said, "It doesn’t matter whether they take a vote or not—a meeting under the Public Meetings Act is defined as the transaction of official business, and 'action' is very broadly defined to include votes as well as discussion, deliberation, consideration, and the taking of public testimony or comments. It’s very, very broad."
In a post on the attorney general's web site, Ford calls discussions like the one the Bellevue council members had a "rolling meeting," in which one official "approach[es] another, and then separately approach[es] each different [official] on the same topic, until the board has collectively considered an issue that should be discussed in an open public meeting. (Clarification: Ford did not look into the specifics of the Bellevue meeting, and was only defining "rolling meetings" generally).
Chelminiak said he felt bringing the issue out into the open, and discussing the letter publicly at last night's meeting, should resolve the open-meetings question. "To me, that takes care of it," he said. "But, as I said [last night], it has to stop."
Ironically, Chelminiak said, the council ultimately added many elements of the "combative" letter Wallace and his allies wanted to include, such as a bullet-point list of the reasons they feel the "Vision Line" alignment is superior to Sound Transit's preferred alignment.
Even more bizarrely, the 4-3 vote that ultimately sent the letter to Sound Transit was made up of three Vision Line opponents (Balducci, Chelminiak, and Grant Degginger) and one proponent (Don Davidson); the three-member minority, consisting of Wallace, Robertson, and Conrad Lee, voted against the letter because they didn't feel it was strong enough.
Read the two letters for yourself here (original staff letter) and here (as edited by Wallace and his three council allies). Video of last night's meeting is available here.
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