It’s time to clear the table. They’ve had enough, thanks.
While there weren’t necessarily any open-meeting laws skirted by the practice, Spokane Valley City Council members decided Tuesday to put an end to pre-meeting dinners.
“When (the meals) were first implemented, the council had a good reason for it,” Mayor Tom Towey said of a resolution that allowed for dinners for council members and staff that had been passed in 2004. “There were many, many meetings and hours worked. I don’t think we’re in that situation anymore.”
Just under $10,000 was spent on meals for council members and staff in 2009. However, Council Member Bill Gothmann said the money and time was well spent, especially for city staff members who often stay late for the meetings, strengthening relationships.
“Instead of a three-hour meeting, we have a four-hour meeting where an hour is spent team-building,” Gothmann said, but added that he didn’t necessarily need a meal himself.
In the end, the council agreed to keep the current resolution in place, which gives the city manager authority to have food available on special occasions. City staff will study what other cities do as far as providing meals for employees.
Some council members, however, are not enamored with that idea.
“I don’t want staff to go away feeling unappreciated,” said Council Member
Brenda Grassel, “but meeting for dinner shouldn’t be on the taxpayer dole.”
There was some question as to whether or not the dinners, where oftentimes the entire council was present, was a violation of the Washington Open Meetings Act. Cary Driskell, deputy city attorney, said they aren’t – as long as city policymaking decisions aren’t discussed.
“The bottom line is this: It’s not where a meeting happens, it’s really what happens at the meeting,” Driskell said.
Driskell added that the Open Public Meetings Act also applies to e-mails that are circulated among a majority of the council members where a discussion of city business takes place. However, social gatherings are OK as long as the talk stays away from government policy.
“If no city business is discussed, it’s not a meeting under the OPMA,” Driskell reiterated.
The council also voted 5-2 to keep their meeting times at 6 p.m. Grassel offered 6:30 p.m. as an alternative, saying it would give community members time to get home from work, have a meal and then travel to City Hall for meetings.
Grassel was supported by Council Member Dean Grafos. However, Gothmann said the bulk of city business that the citizens are interested typically don’t occur until around 6:30 p.m. anyway as the first part of the agenda is made up of committee reports, roll call and consent agenda items.
“I don’t think the public wants to stay any longer than they already are,” he said.