Some uneasy about changes to city advisory board procedures
Changes to procedures for the city of Gig Harbor’s advisory boards and commissions are drawing criticism from a city council member and some volunteers who serve on those advisory panels.
The changes involve how members of the advisory boards are selected and how they communicate with one another and with the city council.
Previously, a Gig Harbor City Council committee interviewed applicants for city advisory boards. The selected candidate would then be appointed at a subsequent meeting of the full council.
That process was improper, city staff members told a recent council study session.
Classifying members of advisory boards
Members of the advisory boards are considered “appointed officials,” City Clerk Josh Stecker and City Attorney Daniel Kenny explained at a June 30 council study session. In code cities that share Gig Harbor’s form of government, state law says the mayor should appoint such officials.
Upon noticing the discrepancy, city staff proposed eliminating requirements for a council committee interview process for prospective members of advisory boards. The council voted on July 25 to instead specify that members of such boards should be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council.
Council member Jeni Woock was the only member to vote against the change.
Woock objected to removal of the language requiring a public interview of advisory board candidates. Those interviews were posted online, providing an opportunity for the public to listen in.
“Just because we are changing the way that these applicants are appointed and confirmed does not mean that we need to limit transparency,” Woock said at the July 25 council meeting.
Woock related a conversation she had with a constituent about the issue. She said the constituent remarked that “obviously, the city is trying to hide something.”
A review of the city’s YouTube channel showed that the council’s Board & Commission Candidate Review Committee had 15 meetings in 2021 and 2022. Combined, the 15 meetings were viewed a total of 67 times. The most views for any individual meeting was 13; one meeting was not viewed by anyone.
Separation of powers
Mayor Tracie Markley promised to keep the council and the public involved in the appointment process.
“I have every desire to be transparent with our citizens,” Markley said at the July 11 council meeting, during the “first reading” of the proposed changes. “I want to make that very clear. This will come before (the council) with your input being included into how people will be chosen for these advisory boards.”
Staff members framed the issue as a matter of separation of powers during a June 30 council study session. Study sessions are for discussion, and no formal decisions can be made at them.
By including language requiring public interviews before the mayor makes an appointment, the council infringed on the executive branch’s prerogatives.
The council “just can’t require the mayor to take certain steps to appoint people,” city attorney Kenny said at the June 30 study session. “Council’s power here is, it can refuse to confirm any appointees.”
Advisory board communications
The other change impacts how members of these boards and commissions communicate with one another, with other boards and with city council members.
The changes — incorporated in a new Article V of the city’s Council Guidelines document — funnel such communications through a city staff member, typically from the city clerk’s office. The staff member “will serve as the liaison between the Advisory Board and the City Council, other Advisory Boards and City staff.”
The document goes on to say that city council members “should not attempt to influence or persuade Advisory Board members on matters referred to the Advisory Board. Similarly, Advisory Board members should not reach out individually to councilmembers to seek direction or guidance.”
The guidelines also restrict advisory board members from inappropriately “represent(ing) themselves as Advisory Board members” to the public unless they’ve been authorized to do so.
Finally, the changes say that advisory board members shouldn’t communicate with one another on official business outside of meetings.
Avoiding ‘serial meetings’
Stecker told city council members and members of advisory boards that the communications changes are intended to avoid inadvertent violations of the state Open Public Meetings Act.
OPMA requires that meetings of government boards be open to the public, with limited exceptions.
The clause restricting advisory board members from talking about public business outside of meetings is an attempt to avoid “serial meetings.” The council guidelines document describes serial meetings as: “when a majority of members have a series of smaller gatherings or communications that results in a majority of the body collectively discussing board matters, even if a majority is never part of any one communication.”
Such a serial meeting would be a violation of the OPMA, likely inadvertently.
Funneling communications through city staff is intended to help staff members stay on top of what the advisory boards need.
Advisory board members have reservations
Some members of advisory boards have expressed reservations about the guidelines in recent meetings.
The parks and arts commissions, for instance, often work on the same projects. Instead of communicating directly with each other, those commissions will work through a staff liaison.
At recent meetings, parks commissioners used words like “regimented” and “onerous” to describe the guidelines.
“You can’t talk to anybody. This is the feeling you get when you actually read the (guidelines) document,” Parks Commission member Georgina Armstrong said at that board’s July 6 meeting.
Stecker responded that the council drove the “philosophical intent” of the changes. Some have concerns that advisory board members could “represent themselves inappropriately, saying ‘this is the position of the city, this is the position of my board.’”
“I don’t think it (the guidelines document) is intended to be onerous at all,” Stecker said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated Gig Harbor’s form of government. The story has now been updated.