Franklin County commissioners won’t be able to cross the river to conduct business unless it is for a reason specifically exempted by state law, according to an opinion released by the state Attorney General’s office.
Benton and Franklin county commissioners routinely met in Kennewick or Pasco for decades about bi-county programs and agencies like human services and superior and juvenile courts.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant requested an opinion about those meetings in June after Franklin commissioners asked about their legality.
Sant recently got word back that commissioners cannot vote or take other action outside the county they represent.
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“A few statutes allow meetings in other counties as to specific subjects, but in the absence of such an exception, any business must be transacted at a meeting within the county borders,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Assistant Attorney General Kaylynn What wrote in the opinion.
“The legislature could, of course, allow joint meetings of county legislative authorities in more circumstances, but has not yet done so,” the opinion said.
Exceptions where commissioners can go to other counties include working on flood control issues and creating a library district. Commissioners can attend meetings in other counties, even if they create a quorum, as long as they take no action.
The opinion likely means the end of in-person bi-county meetings for now, Franklin commission Chairman Bob Koch said.
“We could go over, but we can’t make any decisions, so it really wouldn’t be beneficial to meet,” he said.
The opinion was not a surprise, Sant said Tuesday. The counties have not had joint meetings since he made the request to the attorney general. But the county can now ask legislators to try to expand the number of exceptions that would allow bi-county meetings.
“If our commissioners have a need and feel it would be a benefit to have the meetings, we probably should add some exceptions,” he said.
County commissions are allowed to meet using video conferencing with other county commissions, as long as they are in their own county seats, the opinion said.
“We find this use of technology to be similar to the rulings by appellate courts that approve the use of video conferencing when it otherwise promotes efficiency,” it said.
The opinion refers to a statute that says county commissions must meet in their county seat, unless they call a special meeting in a part of the county where agenda items are of “unique interest or concern” to residents of that area. State Solicitor General Noah Purcell told the Herald it is not clear what impact that would have on Benton commissioners meeting in Kennewick, instead of Prosser, because it wasn’t addressed in the question at hand.
“We did say that regular meetings are to be held at the county seat,” Purcell said. “I don’t want to cast doubt on anything that’s been done without knowing in detail what they’ve been doing.”
The decision shouldn’t impact past decisions made in bi-county meetings, Koch said.
“Normally what happens on something like that, ‘once you know about it, beware,’ ” Koch said. “But they don’t usually look back.”
It doesn’t appear that the county would face any kind of discipline for meeting in the wrong location, Purcell said.
“I don’t think that statute has any penalties associated with it,” Purcell said. “There is no section in that chapter that says, ‘if you violate this, this would happen.’ ”
Benton County commission Chairman Jim Beaver will have to check with his county’s prosecutor’s office before knowing whether the decision will impact bi-county programs in the future, he said.
“I don’t have that answer, but it’s starting to sound like it can,” he said.
Sant was unsure why no one has checked into the legality of the meetings, which have been taking place for decades, before.
“The only thing I can guess is it’s become more and more prevalent and it’s something that has evolved as governments try to become more efficient on a local level,” he said.