The state Attorney General's Office is investigating whether it's OK for Franklin County commissioners to cross the river and officially meet with their Benton County counterparts.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant requested an opinion from the office June 24 on whether state law allows the meetings.
Deputy Solicitor General Jeff Even responded in a letter this month that the office plans to research and review the issue before writing a formal opinion. It will then be submitted to state Attorney General Bob Ferguson for approval to be published.
Through the years, Franklin and Benton county commissioners have occasionally met together in Kennewick or Pasco to discuss bi-county programs and agencies, including human services and superior and juvenile courts.
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Franklin County Chairman Bob Koch said he recently became concerned about whether it is legal to meet and vote outside the county.
Commissioners asked Sant to look into the issue.
Sant said the biggest concern is when commissioners take a vote when they are outside the county. They need to make sure the public has a chance to watch and comment on the joint meetings, even if it is by video connection.
"When they discuss a topic, there's usually a period of input. The question becomes, 'How do we address a person in Franklin County before that vote takes place?' " he said.
For now, Franklin County commissioners have decided they will not send more than one commissioner to meetings in Benton County to avoid a quorum that would constitute an official meeting.
Koch said the county hasn't had any complaints about the meetings.
"I just want to stay above board," he said. "I don't want to go a year down the road and find out it was illegal."
"So many RCWs are vague to me, and obviously to Shawn Sant, also," Koch said.
He does not believe previous votes the commissioners took in Benton County would be voided if the meetings are found to be illegal.
County commissioners are allowed to meet elsewhere in the county, like Connell, but only if the measure they are considering affects the place they are meeting, Koch said.
The jurisdiction issue doesn't affect the Benton-Franklin Health District board, even though it is made up of the six commissioners from Benton and Franklin counties.Koch explained that the commissioners are considered separate board members for the bi-county district.
Similarly, separate districts may need to be created to manage jointly funded departments, Koch said.
The Attorney General's Office hopes to have an opinion issued by late September, Even said.
"It generally takes at least a couple months," he told the Herald. "Sometimes it goes longer than that."
Getting the opinion in time for the 2015 legislative session will be important, in case the county needs to ask for changes to the law, Sant said. The issue is important to other counties, as well, he said.
"Every county has a bi-county meeting of some sort," he said.
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom