This article ran in the Seattle Times on October 23, 2007. It is co-authored by Mr. Lancaster's friend and colleague, Jerry Cronk.
OPEN PUBLIC MEETINGS ACT: POLITICAL WEAPON
When the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) was adopted in 1971, the legislature did not imagine its unintended consequences. OPMA intended to protect the people’s right to remain “informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” OPMA provides worthwhile guidelines for the conduct of local government decision making. OPMA says that a quorum of elected officials must conduct business in an open and advertised meeting.
Political losers have twisted OPMA’s intent. They make strident claims of “illegal meetings” after losing votes at open meetings. Frequently, OPMA claims follow when a council fires a chief administrator. In the hands of angry losers, an OPMA lawsuit becomes the weapon of first resort.
Only four of the fourteen appellate cases addressing OPMA violations resulted in clear wins or partial victories; nine resulted in dismissals. In spite of this abysmal record, disgruntled, combative politicians and their supporters turn to the courts in hope of tarnishing the image of political winners. Losers intentionally bypass the normal democratic, election process and employ OPMA to defeat the process they profess to promote. Losers use the press to convert speculation into “compelling evidence.” Such political litigation discourages well-qualified candidates from running for office. The prospect of lawsuits prevents some elected officials from making difficult votes. Only a few elected officials challenge powerful administrators. So, the prospect of OPMA litigation chills our democratic process. It hurts us all.
Shoreline’s OPMA lawsuit is a grievous example of this abuse. At the Shoreline City Council meeting of December 12, 2005, the Council, by majority vote, in an open meeting for which proper notice was given, working under the direction of assigned legal counsel, passed a resolution to accept the resignation of the city manager. The accusers in Shoreline’s OPMA suit spent twenty months and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars trying to prove their case, yet uncovered no evidence of illegal meetings.
Those accusers now beat their disinformation drum arguing that “the evidence is compelling.” The law provides a quick remedy for people with compelling evidence — summary judgment. Such motions can be scheduled on twenty-eight days notice and are granted when compelling evidence is presented. The accusers dawdled for fourteen months before moving for summary judgment. Judge Armstrong heard their “evidence” and denied summary judgment for each of the accusers’ claims. For their OPMA suit, the handwriting was on the wall.
Pressures mounted on the accusers to drop their OPMA case. In desperation, accusers added the City of Shoreline as a defendant, working out a settlement by which the accusers recouped some of their legal fees. As a result, the accused defendants never got their day in court and were prohibited from participating in the settlement. Nevertheless, the accusers’ lawsuit served the accusers’ purposes. Shoreline’s headline grabbing settlement occurred September 14, 2007, just in time to attract the attention of voters in November’s coming election. That could not be an accident.
Shoreline’s OPMA suit diverted attention from the real issues that face Shoreline — streets, sidewalks, parks, crime, environment, development, affordable housing. Despite the hostile working environment, the Council made progress. Yet, the spotlight has been taken off the accomplishments of the Council and the new City Manager.
The worthwhile purposes of the Open Public Meetings Act are frustrated when the law is used as a political weapon. Then we all lose.
Mr. Cronk and Mr. Lancaster are private civil practice attorneys whose offices are located in Shoreline, Washington.