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Originally published October 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 24, 2007 at 3:48 PM

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Guest columnists

Open-meetings act tarnished by those who abuse its intent

When the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) was adopted in 1971, the Legislature did not imagine its unintended consequences.

Special to The Times

When the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) was adopted in 1971, the Legislature did not imagine its unintended consequences.

The act's intent was 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. It says a quorum of elected officials must conduct business in an open, advertised meeting.

But, some have twisted its intent. Having lost politically, they make strident claims of "illegal meetings." In their hands, a lawsuit under the open-meetings act becomes the weapon of first resort.

Only four of 14 state appellate cases involving alleged OPMA violations have resulted in clear wins or partial victories for complainants; nine resulted in dismissals. The 14th was remanded to a lower court.

Despite this record, disgruntled parties turn to the courts in the hope of tarnishing the image of those who have done nothing wrong. They use the media to turn speculation into "compelling evidence" and employ the open-meetings act to muddy the local election process. Is it any wonder well-qualified candidates are discouraged from running for office?

The prospect of lawsuits also prevents some elected officials from making difficult votes. The specter of OPMA litigation chills our democratic process. It hurts us all.

A grievous example of this has played out in Shoreline over the past couple of years.

On Dec. 12, 2005, the Shoreline City Council passed a resolution accepting the resignation of the then-city manager. The majority vote was taken in an open meeting, for which proper notice was given. The council majority was working under the direction of assigned legal counsel.

Two weeks later, a lawsuit was filed by opponents of the action, claiming violation of the Open Public Meetings Act. Plaintiffs spent 20 months — at the cost of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars — trying to prove their case, yet uncovered no evidence of illegal meetings. Still, they beat a disinformation drum, saying that "the evidence is compelling."

The law provides a quick remedy for people with compelling evidence — summary judgment. Yet, when plaintiffs in the Shoreline case moved for summary judgment after waiting for 14 months, King County Superior Court Judge Sharon Armstrong, after hearing their evidence, denied summary judgment for each of their claims. The handwriting was on the wall.

But, rather than dropping their case, the plaintiffs added the city of Shoreline as a defendant. They then worked out a settlement by which they recouped some of their legal fees. Meanwhile, individual council members, named as defendants and accused of violating the open-meetings act, never got their day in court and were prohibited from participating in the settlement.

The lawsuit, which we have thoroughly reviewed, served an ignoble purpose. The Sept. 14 settlement grabbed headlines just as the City Council elections headed toward the November general election. The suit diverted attention from the real issues that Shoreline faces — streets, sidewalks, parks, crime, environment, development, affordable housing.

Despite this hostile working environment, the council has made progress. Yet, the spotlight has been taken off the accomplishments of the council and Shoreline's 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.

Brad Lancaster and Jerry Cronk are attorneys with offices in Shoreline. Lancaster represented a witness in the Shoreline open-meetings case during a deposition prior to settlement, but neither he nor Cronk represented any of the direct parties in the suit.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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