In a memo mailed to Napavine City Council members prior to a city council executive session, City Attorney Bill Hillier provided information that was not exempt from open public meeting laws under the executive session statute RCW 42.30.110. The "confidential" Hillier memo clearly includes information regarding council vacancies, contract for legal services, and Well 6 sodium advisory -- none of which are covered under executive sessions as set forth in RCW 42.30.110.
It is important to understand what can legally be included in an executive session. The items mentioned above are not covered anywhere in RCW 42.30.110.
Only topics explicitly authorized may take place in an executive session. Topics that may be discussed in executive session includes potential or pending litigation, national security, confidential land purchases, etc. Any other matter of discussion in executive session is a violation of state law and deprives the public from information they are entitled to. The information provided in the Hillier memo for the executive session was in violation of RCW 42.30.110 and raises questions as to why such a document would need to be kept confidential from the citizens of Napavine.
One issue covered in the Hillier memo regards the appointment of Mr. Wheeler to the city council, which was later found to be an illegal appointment. According to the Hillier memo, the Napavine city attorney was contacted by Glenn Carter, Lewis County deputy prosecuting attorney, regarding the improper appointment of Wheeler after the allowable timeframe had passed.
In the Hillier memo, the Napavine city attorney states: "I explained to Mr. Carter that the remaining city council was prepared to appoint Mr. Wheeler if the County had no objection. Mr. Carter confirmed that this was acceptable to the County and authorized the City to proceed with Mr. Wheeler's appointment."
In a letter obtained from the Lewis County Prosecutor's Office dated Feb. 24, 2017, it's clear that the Napavine city attorney did not disclose the actual facts. The letter from Prosecuting Attorney Jonathan Meyer to the Napavine city attorney states, "Your conversation with Glenn Carter regarding the appointment of Mr. Wheeler is overstated and not inclusive of all the facts. In fact, you indicated there was a vacancy and the city wanted to appoint a new member and specifically requested the county not be involved. There was no indication of the pertinent facts involved in the situation (i.e. the position had been vacant beyond the 90-day limit). Had the situation been relayed accurately, a much different conversation would have taken place."
"Your presentation was, in fact, an attempt to shift blame," the prosecuting attorney's letter continues. "Perhaps not to an entity, but certainly away from one. Again, had proper information been provided to the proper office, proper analysis would have been conducted and this entire situation could have been avoided."
The Hillier memo explains why the Napavine city attorney did not advise the city about this situation sooner, stating, "Penny Jo Haney did not notify our office that the positions ultimately filled by Armondo and Craig had been unfilled for approximately 6 months."
This places the blame solely on the city clerk for the positions not being filled in a timely manner. However, the city attorney attends at least one council meeting a month and receives an agenda that identifies the name of the council members and the vacant positions, yet the city attorney did nothing. Further, the city attorney attended a council meeting in February 2016 where this very issue was discussed. No apology has been given to the City of Napavine or the public for the city attorney's lack of attention in this matter.
The executive session is also not a place for a city attorney to tell the council that the city attorney cannot be fired. However, it is clear that that is exactly what the city attorney did in the executive session. As stated in last week's edition of the Town Crier, the city attorney informed the council that the council could not fire him and that such decisions are solely up to the mayor. To use an executive session to make this statement instead of an open public meeting is questionable to say the least.
The Hillier memo also goes on to claim that hiring the other municipal law firm in our area is not legally possible for the city because that firms represents individuals who are in litigation with the city or may become involved in litigation. Again, this is false information. If the city attorney hired any other law firm, that firm would simply not represent individuals against the city. It is important to understand that the individuals that the law firm in question represents do not currently have a lawsuit against the city, contrary to what is suggested by the Hillier memo. It is highly unorthodox for the city attorney to tell the city what firm they can and can't hire for the city attorney position, such decisions being the purview of the mayor and city council. It is also highly unusual that when you fire someone the terminated person chooses their replacement, and yet the Hillier Memo states, "If at some point the Mayor elects to discontinue our retainer, we will provide him with a list of well qualified municipal attorneys."
The Town Crier reached out to Hillier, Scheibmeir and Kelly for comment but the firm had not responded at the time of publication.
To sum up, the public has a fundamental right to be informed, and certainly to not be misled. Improperly using executive session as a veil of secrecy to avoid public scrutiny is a violation of Washington's open public meeting laws. These issues should have been discussed in an open forum, but for some reason the city attorney felt he has the right to use an executive session to his benefit and to the detriment of everyone else.
The next city council meeting is scheduled for April 25 at 6:00 p.m.