The recent decision by Arlington city officials and elected officials to place the issue of the early termination of Police Chief John Gray’s employment with city in the Consent Agenda portion of the City Council’s July 7 meeting had me wondering what is the definition of “Routine”?
That question came up because the city of Arlington’s own guidelines state: “The Consent Agenda may contain items which are of a routine and non-controversial nature…” So the question had to be asked, “Is the early termination of the employment contract of the city’s top law enforcement officer of a routine and non-controversial nature?”
The issue is important because consent agenda items are not discussed individually and are voted on in a block. So in one vote, the Council can approved any number of items listed in the consent agenda. Additionally, it is common that no debate is allowed on the consent agenda or on any item included in it, and consent items may be read by title only. This is an understandable and time-saving method used to address mundane issues such as those listed in the city’s guidelines: “meeting minutes, payroll, claims, budget amendments, park use requests and any item previously approved by Council with a unanimous vote and which is being submitted to Council for final approval.” But some like me also see placing items in the consent agenda as a way of pushing something through without informing the public or requiring Council members to cast their vote on just that issue in the public realm — Council members are voting on the entire consent agenda and not just on one specific agenda item.
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines Routine as “a regular procedure, customary or prescribed.” In Arlington, is the early termination of a department head’s employment contract “a regular procedure”? If it isn’t, then why put it in the consent agenda?
City governments have a few basic responsibilities — the most important of which is public safety. If a situation arises wherein the Mayor and City Council have such concerns that they are willing to go through the time, effort and taxpayer expense (six months of salary, six months of insurance, cost of a consultant and associated costs of hiring a new chief) of terminating the contract of the police chief, the public has a right to be informed of those concerns and their current and future impact on the department and its ability to continue to ensure public safety. The Public Disclosure Act, which deals with the public’s right to know, states: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so they may maintain control over the instruments they have created.” When passed in 1972, Initiative 276 contained a similar statement, “That, mindful of the right of individuals to privacy and the desirability of the efficient administration of government, full access to information concerning the conduct of government on every level must be assured as a fundamental and necessary precondition to the sound governance of a free society.” And the Municipal Research and Services Center, in its Public Records Act report, states: “Both the state legislature and the voters of Washington are clear about their position on public disclosure: the citizens of this state have a right to know almost all of the details of how local and state governments are run. The courts have enforced this policy by liberally construing the Act’s disclosure provisions and narrowly construing its exemptions.”
So with so much emphasis on the public’s right to know, why are Arlington’s city and elected officials so resolute in not discussing the issue, stating that it is a personnel issue. While state law does exempt the disclosure of some personal information, it is not a blanket exemption. And in Yakima Newspapers v. Yakima (1995) the courts ruled a former fire chief’s settlement which included information on his performance of his public office was not exempt from disclosure. It would seem that the mayor, or her designated representative, could provide some basic information to the public about the issues leading to the contract termination without fear of legal ramifications. The public, after all, has the right to be informed about issues affecting the department responsible for ensuring their safety.
Another consideration is the Right to Privacy issue but the test is whether the record would be highly offensive to a reasonable person and is not of legitimate concern to the public. Detailing the concerns which led to their decision would not be considered highly offensive to a reasonable person and is of legitimate concern to the public.
While the Public Disclosure Act deals with “public records,” specifically any writing containing information relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or propriety function,” the intent of the law should be carried throughout government. While the city has not denied us any request for written documents, they have been less than willing to discuss the issues relating to the chief’s termination in any substantive manner. Keeping in mind the intent of the law, when asked a question a government or elected official should keep disclosure foremost in their answer and be as forthcoming as possible.
Some city and elected officials may feel that I’m making a big deal out of something that really isn’t that important. I disagree, I believe the public’s right to know is important, and if that right is disregarded, overlooked or forgotten, it is my responsibility — and the public’s responsibility — to speak up and demand to be informed.
To contact a member of The Marysville Globe/Arlington Times editorial board — Stuart Chernis or Scott Frank — e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.