Official makes noise over whisper

July 24th, 2003

By Brent Champaco
Tri-City Herald staff writer

Pasco, WA - Pasco Councilwoman Eileen Crawford says a decision to support a mail-in primary election should be reversed because of an alleged violation of the state open meetings act.

The violation, she wrote in an e-mail addressed to Pasco City Attorney Leland Kerr, hinges on a whisper from Mayor Mike Garrison to Councilwoman Rebecca Francik that may have influenced Francik during the session and led to the council approving the motion on a 4-3 vote Monday.

But Francik said Wednesday that Garrison simply asked her that evening whether she sends her mail-in ballot to the county immediately or waits. She said her decision to support the motion was based on public comments from other council members.

"I am sorry if it gave the appearance that Mayor Garrison has control over my vote," Francik said. "But the truth of matter is, I have a logical mind and am perfectly capable of making my own decision."

Still, Crawford's argument sets up a legal debate about whispering among public officials that even the state hasn't examined.

"It seems to me there's a number of ways you could go at it," said David Stolier, assistant attorney general with the state. He said an option could include taking the dispute before a judge.

The issue stems from Franklin County's recommendation to conduct the Sept. 16 primary election only through mail-in ballots. Those elections save money and encourage a higher voter turnout than poll elections, according to the county auditor's office.

Initially, Francik was undecided and apparently saw the merits of both sides of the issue. She said she walked in to the meeting Monday ready to support the county's idea but changed her stance a few minutes into the discussion.

After she stated her new position, Garrison whispered something into her ear, Crawford wrote in the e-mail to Kerr. A few minutes after the exchange, Francik changed her stance again and announced she'd vote in favor of the recommendation.

Crawford, who apparently sent her e-mail minutes after Monday's meeting was adjourned, contends whatever Garrison whispered, it was enough to change Francik's vote.

That is a "blatant violation" of Washington's open meetings act, which states deliberations regarding public business between public agencies, including city councils, must be conducted openly, according to Crawford's e-mail. She also sent it to Pasco City Manager Gary Crutchfield and the rest of the council.

But Francik said she made up her mind after listening to Councilman Carl Strode, who pointed out that residents have the same amount of time to cast their ballot whether it's a mail-in or poll election.

"I explained to the citizens in the council room why I changed it (the vote)," Francik said. "This had more to do with an open and honest dialogue between council members."

Garrison wasn't available for comment Wednesday evening.

But even officials at the state Attorney General's office said whispers among city officials is unexplored legal ground.

The issue has many questions, including what words actually were exchanged between Francik and Garrison and whether those words ultimately influenced her decision, Stolier said.

"How can anybody prove that whatever was whispered changed her vote?" he said. "At some point, we're getting down to the level of minutiae where it's a difficult issue."

A council member can consult with the city attorney over what, if any, legal action should be taken, he said. However, any resident can take the issue to Superior Court.

Kerr said Crawford spoke with him in the city hall parking lot after the meeting Monday. He told her that based on their discussion and his initial observations, no law was broken.

"I saw nothing that would suggest there was a violation of the open public meetings act," he said Wednesday.

Kerr told Crawford the law didn't address the specific issue of whispering. However, council members can request comments be documented as public records, he said.

Kerr has yet to officially address Crawford's concerns. "If I'm directed by the city manager or the mayor to conduct a legal response, I will do so," he said.

Councilman Joe Jackson said he saw Garrison whisper to Francik, although both council members are credible and wouldn't conduct themselves in any matter that would violate the law.

"I saw Mike speak to Rebecca the same way I talk to Carl Strode or Tom Larsen," said Jackson, referring to the two councilmen whom he sits between. "It is common practice for a council member, commissioner, whatever, to initially arrive at one position, and then after further discussion, change their position."

Larsen expressed a different opinion, arguing the city "does not have the right to keep things quiet."

"If he (Garrison) did what they saw, then he violated the law," he said.

When asked whether her e-mail was politically motivated, Crawford, who publicly endorses Mark Cordery and Al Akerson, two residents who intend to challenge for open council positions this year, said it wasn't.

"We can't continue to run our city government this way," she said. "It's the law, period."

However, Crawford's claim essentially means council members shouldn't change their minds on issues, even after they publicly discuss it.

"That is not the Democratic process," she said.

Whatever the case, the issue is interesting, Stolier said.

"I can't really give you an impression of how it's going to turn out," he said. "It's nothing we (in the Attorney General's office) have certainly talked about."


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