Lewis County will be facing the financial music and paying $20,000 plus attorneys fees after commissioners were accused of violating the state Open Public Meetings Act in a lawsuit.
The litigation, brought by Brian Cortland and Brian Green, followed reporting by The Chronicle that commissioners were meeting without the required 24 hours of notice required by the law.
Further reporting found the commissioners were acting based on a 2009 resolution that claimed Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. was considered one continuous public meeting at the Lewis County Courthouse.
The Washington Coalition for Open Government, which honored The Chronicle with Key Awards for its reporting and commentary last month, joined the newspaper in filing records requests and questioning the county’s claims.
The Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office issued a new policy bringing the commissioners in line with the law and restoring 24 hours of notice for meetings. It was an important change for those who value transparency in government. Constituents are entitled to know what their elected leaders are doing and when.
The lawsuit is unfortunate for taxpayers. It’s also a reminder of the inherent difficulty of managing the operations of Lewis County through the three-commissioner format. Two commissioners can’t discuss policy without it constituting a public meeting, yet all three commissioners work in close quarters at the Lewis County Courthouse virtually every day.
It’s a situation that in some ways stacks the deck against compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act.
That’s one of the reasons we support the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce’s plan to pursue a home rule charter and reorganize the leadership structure to include a larger team of commissioners who would work on a part-time basis to direct a professional manager.
One Lewis County is proposing a slate of five commissioners who could provide broader representation of the county and more efficiently communicate without breaking the law. They would be paid far less to make room in the budget for a manager.
The Centralia and Chehalis city councils each function well with seven-member bodies that direct professional managers to lead operations. Many counties across the country operate with five- and seven-member councils or boards.
Members of a slate of five commissioners would in some cases be able to discuss matters with one another without creating a quorum, a development that could improve communication without risking violations.
We believe a larger commission and the addition of a manager would go a long way in preventing expensive violations of law that are currently difficult to avoid for the commissioners.
Learn more about One Lewis County at onelewiscounty.com.