The meetings are open - if you know when they are

Peter Callaghan; The News Tribune

Tacoma, WA - 4/25/02 -It's almost too easy to point out the irony of the Tacoma City Council holding its most invisible meetings in a place called the "Visibility Center."

It's a nice room in the corner of the ninth floor of the Tacoma Municipal Building, with a sweeping view of downtown. Apparently the economic development staff uses it when they bring potential investors to town.

On Tuesdays at 2 p.m. the Visibility Center is the site of something called the committee of the whole. It's an official public meeting of all nine council members along with the city manager and staff.

That's the same cast that attends the Tuesday noon study session and the Tuesday evening regular council meeting. But unlike those meetings, few citizens attend the committee of the whole. It's not because they're not interested. It's because they probably don't know it exists.

How would they? The regular council meeting has a detailed agenda that allows citizens to attend meetings on topics that interest them. And an interested citizen can easily find out what will be discussed at the study session. The city's public relations staff makes sure those are all publicized.

But there is no public agenda for the committee of the whole. In fact, the only place to find the announcement of the committee of the whole on Tacoma's otherwise excellent Web page is among a listing of all city meetings. There it is among the weekly bid openings, the meeting of the contracts and awards board, and the Tacoma-Vladivostok Sister City Committee meeting.

City spokesman Dan Voelpel says the city abides by the state open meetings law. It created the weekly meeting by ordinance, and the meeting is open to anyone who wants to attend. But there is no agenda because the council uses the meeting to discuss topics that might come up with little or no notice, he said.

Tuesday's meeting included a discussion of the Albers Mill project and included people invited days before. Hardly last minute. But without an agenda, interested citizens must attend every meeting just in case a topic they care about is discussed.

Another irony is the language used in the resolution creating the committee of the whole. "It is the City Council's intent to provide opportunities for citizens to participate in the affairs and activities of city government to the fullest extent possible." But by shifting important discussions from the well-publicized regular council meeting to the shadowy committee of the whole, the council is doing just the opposite.

The Pierce County Council has no trouble providing timely announcements and accurate agendas for its committee of the whole meetings. Could it be the Tacoma City Council doesn't call attention to the committee of the whole because it doesn't want us to attend? These aren't light subjects being discussed. Tuesday's topics were the troubled Albers Mill renovation, threats by the LeMay Car Museum to go to another city and financial demands being made by the owners of the Sheraton Tacoma Hotel.

While eating box lunches, the council members listened to frank descriptions of all three. They then engaged in an equally frank discussion. Different points of view were voiced but with an eye toward solving the problem, not scoring rhetorical points. It was civil and substantive. But only a handful of people witnessed it. Which, strangely, appears to be the point.

The intent of the state open meetings act is that actions of government officials "be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly."

But if an open meeting is held and no one knows about it, is it really open?

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