State Auditor says Sunnyside sessions should have been public
Jul 04, 2012 (Yakima Herald-Republic - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
SUNNYSIDE, Wash. -- State Auditor Brian Sonntag, a longtime vocal advocate for open government, said Tuesday this city's private meetings to review a draft audit did not violate the law but, in hindsight, he would have advised they be public.
"Any time they're meeting in a professional setting or a setting to discuss city business, I'm saying the doors ought to be open," Sonntag said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
On Friday, the Sunnyside City Manager Frank Sweet encouraged all City Council members to attend the exit interview of a regular state audit that scrutinizes the city's financial management for 2010 and 2011. However, the members came in shifts -- three at one meeting, two at another an hour later. Two members were unable to attend at all.
The format technically allowed city officials to keep the meeting private. State law requires all meetings attended by the majority of the elected legislative body to be public with advance notice.
Had they asked him ahead of time, Sonntag would have advised on moral grounds to either leave the council members out or let the public in, he said.
"My advice is open the door," he said.
Despite the "serial" nature of the two, quorum-lacking meetings, Sonntag said he does not suspect the city violated state open meetings laws.
"I think the law is vague enough," he said.
Meanwhile, an open government expert at the state Attorney General's office also questioned the meetings.
Tim Ford, open government ombudsman for the office, told the Yakima Herald-Republic on Monday that he would have preferred that the city simply hold the hearings a second time in a public forum.
Ford stopped short of calling the private briefings illegal but said courts have taken issue with so-called "serial meetings" that circumvent the public notice requirement. An email or phone chain would be another example of meetings about official business that circumvent the law.
Elected officials rarely attend exit interviews -- where a draft of the results are first presented, Sonntag said. Typically, the auditor meets with city staff members and maybe one council member who sits on a finance committee.
After the exit interview, city officials may challenge factual details and ask for changes before the audit is finalized. That's why auditors usually suggest cities keep the draft private.
"If this were concerning the city making policy ... I would view that as inappropriate, but that's not what this meeting was about, at least from our perspective," he said.
And auditors don't tell cities what to do, Sonntag said.
"We can't tell the city what kind of meeting to have or what their intent is," he said.
The state auditor's office is charged with promoting transparency in government, as well as financial responsibility.
Since he was first elected in 1992, Sonntag has made open government a platform of his campaigns and a major goal of his administration.
In 2008, he and Attorney General Rob McKenna introduced legislation that would have required elected officials to record executive sessions and make the recordings public under court order. It did not pass. In 2009, he and McKenna organized a task force that asked the Legislature to appoint an administrative review board to hear complaints about open government and public records violations.
He also serves on the Board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
He plans to retire at the end of his fifth term at the end of this year.
--Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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