Longview citizen activist Diane Dick Tuesday accused the Cowlitz County commissioners of violating state public meetings law by conducting “special meetings” without giving the public enough information about their dates or content.
Commissioner Dennis Weber called Dick’s claims “unfounded accusations,” and he and fellow commissioner Joe Gardner said they’ve simply followed the guidance of their attorney.
Dick, a former Kelso School Board member and a passionate opponent of the proposed Millennium coal terminal and Kalama methanol plant, was frustrated with the commissioners’ workshops and “commissioner conferences” held on most Tuesday afternoons and Thursday mornings. (These are held in addition to the commissioners’ regular meetings on Tuesday mornings.)
She alleged that the commissioners don’t give enough public notice about the supplemental meetings, and agendas for those meetings are “vague” and don’t properly specify what is to be discussed.
The state’s open meetings law, she noted, mandates that the commissioners’ actions must “be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”
The county did not begin notifying the press about these secondary meetings until April 27. And, until recently, agendas for these supplemental meetings lacked any detail, simply listing subjects, such as “facilities update,” “property management,” and even “miscellaneous.”
Furthermore, the commissioner conferences are held in the commissioners’ office, a much smaller room than the hearing room where the regular Tuesday morning public meetings are held. The setting gives the meetings a feel of a more private gathering.
Any time at least two of the three commissioners meet, they make up a quorum and must meet in public unless the law specifically exempts the subject from public discussion (such as litigation).
Both Weber and Gardner said they’ve relied on Chief Civil Deputy Doug Jensen for guidance on how to comply with the state’s open meetings law.
“We are consulting constantly with our chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney, who is our legal adviser, who is trained to interpret the law, and he has supported our scheduling,” Weber said Tuesday morning.
Gardner added, “We have not done anything contrary to how we have been guided in that process.”
The third commissioner, Arne Mortensen, said the commissioners recently have taken steps to keep the community informed. For example, the county held public meetings about the updated comprehensive plan at night so more citizens could attend, he pointed out.
Mortensen also noted that most citizens simply didn’t care about most county government proceedings.
“I think we do a lot of perfunctory things here that are of marginal interest to the public,” he said. “What interest do you have when there’s already something that you’ve seen twice before, and the third time ... we put a stamp on it?”
In a Tuesday afternoon email to The Daily News, Jensen wrote that the commissioners “have been counseled” regarding the Open Public Meeting Act.
“While our Office is not a participant in most Board meetings ... my presumption would be that the Board follows these guidelines, the training and our advice,” he wrote.