Julie McDonald Commentary: County Commissioners’ Reticence Explained

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When I spoke with Lewis County Commissioner Lindsey Pollock a week ago, she said commissioners are extra cautious about commenting on a topic when it might be perceived as violating the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).

“Open public meetings has changed significantly in the past three or four years,” she said. “There were some pretty hefty fines levied.”

She referred to lawsuits filed against the county in 2017 by Brian Green and Brian Cortland, who contended Commissioners Edna Fund, Bobby Jackson and Gary Stamper violated the Open Public Meetings Act at least 13 times by June of that year. They asked the county for $250,000 — and a promise not to speak negatively about them — to make their lawsuit go away, a settlement rejected by commissioners.

The plaintiffs contended at least two commissioners met or discussed a topic without first filing proper notice of a public meeting. The commissioners settled the lawsuit for $57,370, including attorney’s fees and $10,000 each to Green and Cortland.

A 2009 resolution had declared commissioners considered themselves in open public session during business hours every day. But in the spring of 2017, before the lawsuit was filed, the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office tightened rules for open public meeting rules for commissioners, saying the 2009 resolution no longer justifies continuous meetings. It required commissioners to publish and stick to agendas for regular meetings and provide 24 hours’ notice for additional meetings with a quorum or voting majority of at least two commissioners.

However, David Fine, a civil attorney with the prosecutor’s office, said that two commissioners still can separately answer the same question from reporters without violating the act. But they can’t discuss the question as a group.

Fine also said that Cortland and Green “seem to have made an occupation by bringing court actions,” according to a May 10, 2017, Chronicle article. In fact, Green recently filed a public records lawsuit against Pierce County. 

Lewis County’s new policy is more restrictive than the OPMA by prohibiting commissioners at meetings from discussing items not already on the agenda — such as Toledo area resident Scott Crossfield’s concerns about the Mandy Road mine. And, while the OPMA allows commissioners to attend social events as a quorum without notifying the public as long as they don’t discuss county business, the new Lewis County policy states that the commission will give the public 24 hours’ notice before attending social gatherings together.

They can’t approve staff requests without a meeting, Fine said, but they can be briefed on time-sensitive topics if they don’t discuss what they learn.

“I don’t know that any of us are not willing to speak to the public,” Pollock said. “We’re very, very aware of trying to do it within the bounds of the laws.”

Commissioners will answer questions from the public, but they’ll try to focus on the issues in their separate districts. The Mandy Road mine is in Stamper’s district.

“We’ve tried to focus on our own district because of the Open Public Meetings Act,” Pollock said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t work outside of our districts on things that are, say, our special interests. But as a matter of course, we can only try to keep this in our district so that we don’t get fined.”

“It’s a new game,” Pollock continued. “Our county is probably a little more stringent than other ones because of the fact that we’ve had to pay fines related to it.”

 

Public Information Specialist

As for the hiring of a public information specialist, both Stamper and Pollock described it as a special project of Commissioner Sean Swope. However, they voted in favor of hiring a full-time PR specialist with a salary of $57,720 to $77,628, plus benefits. The goal is to provide information to the public on complex topics such as COVID-19 and the Mandy Road mine.

It surprised me that they’d hire a PR person, especially because Rieva Lester, the commissioners’ clerk since 2016, has a background in journalism. I worked with her at The Daily News in Longview. She’s fabulous. They should just give her a pay raise to cover her PR work.

Stamper said the county wants to “be transparent as possible.” I hope that’s possible with a public information specialist.

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.