Committed to transparency | Guest editorial

What does it mean when a city council holds executive sessions?

  • Friday, March 22, 2019 8:30am
  • Opinion
Bothell deputy mayor Davina Duerr. Photo courtesy of city of Bothell

Bothell deputy mayor Davina Duerr. Photo courtesy of city of Bothell

During a recent Council Conversation at the Bothell Library, an attendee asked, “Why do you have so many executive sessions? Why can’t you tell us what happens in them?”

I understand the frustration some people feel at council spending so much time in private conference while residents wonder what why it seems so secret.

Legislators developed state laws that increase transparency because of the Watergate scandal. For example, the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) requires most government discussions to be public. However, under state law, certain communications can be kept confidential, including executive sessions. RCW 42.30.110 states which topics we can discuss during these executive sessions. When City Council goes into executive session, the mayor always announces the RCW that allows that topic to be privately discussed. City Council executive sessions are most often about potential or actual litigation. One thing I’ve learned since being on council is that cities are involved in a lot of litigation or the threat of it. The city attorney must be present for these discussions, and sometimes we have outside counsel as well; we meet in private to protect both the city and the taxpayers. It is in the taxpayers’ best interest that we avoid open discussion of our legal strategies when faced with potential or actual litigation.

State law (RCW 42.30.140) also allows closed sessions for collective bargaining with labor unions. Such negotiations remain private for the protection of both teams, allowing us to come up with an offer for employees covered by labor unions, such as fire fighters, police officers and certain municipal staff.

Another reason is for the acquisition of real estate, although that’s fairly rare for us. For example, the city purchased several parcels during the beginning of the downtown implementation plan. Again, openly sharing our maximum price wouldn’t make sense just as you wouldn’t want the owner of a house you want to buy to know how much you are willing to pay.

We carefully adhere to the Washington OPMA, which means we publicize agendas for council and commission meetings and note when any other meeting has a quorum. Most council meetings are open sessions, with public hearings, presentations and council discussion conducted in public. These meetings are typically video recorded, so you can watch them on YouTube at your leisure if you’re not able to attend. When rare meetings aren’t video recorded, the public is always welcome to observe in person and are notified of the meeting time and location in advance. Examples are the annual council retreat, interviews for board and commission openings and sometimes joint discussions with other government agencies where no decisions are scheduled.

City Council is committed to transparency with our residents. We encourage you to stay informed about the business of your local government. Through our website, social media, electronic and print publications, YouTube and tools like our online document library, it’s easy to find public records and information.

I encourage you to stay informed about the work of your city. Sign up for the eNews, subscribe to receive City Council agendas, and more at www.bothellwa.gov/list.aspx. Attend council meetings, or watch them live or recorded; get links at www.bothellwa.gov.bctv. Learn more about the OPMA from the Municipal Research and Services Center at http://bit.ly/2T6yTUn.

Davina Duerr is the deputy mayor of Bothell.

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