Port Ludlow district decision conflicts with attorney general’s advice

Shift to conference call meetings without speaker phone for public prompted concern

PORT LUDLOW — Port Ludlow Drainage District commissioners agreed to meet mostly by conference calls without a speaker phone for residents despite a state Attorney General’s Office opinion that this potentially violates the Open Public Meetings Act.

The Jan. 9 decision by the two members now serving on the three-member commission shifted the meeting schedule from monthly in-person meetings to quarterly in-person meetings, with commissioners meeting during the remaining months through conference calls.

By doing this, they potentially violate the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) because they’re not providing a speaker phone for members of the public, said Nancy Krier, state assistant attorney general for open government, in June.

Community members can call in at 848-777-1212 and enter the conference code 37246# to join the calls, the first of which will be this coming Thursday.

Having the meetings by conference call is fine, Krier said Tuesday. However, she is of the opinion that a room with the call on speaker phone must be available to the public to listen to the call without residents having to call in.

“Really, the purpose of the conference call is to give an approval or disapproval of the invoices,” said Commissioner Deborah Helleson. “It’s not much different than normal. I think it’s pretty straightforward.”

The Port Ludlow Drainage District (PLDD) was founded in 2000 as a Jefferson County Special Purpose District which oversaw storm water drainage problems on common property within the North Bay area of Port Ludlow.

After installing the proper infrastructure by 2016, the commissioners have now “slipped into a very comfortable maintenance mode,” Helleson said.

The approved resolution says that action taken at the conference call meetings is limited to the review, discussion, approval or rejection of warrants for payments and the review, discussion and approval of the minutes of prior meetings.

The change had been in discussion since May, said Katie Smith, former commissioner, who contacted the Attorney General’s office and the Municipal Research Services Corporation (MRSC) — which gave the same opinion — in June. She had attended a seminar of Krier’s talking about the OPMA and was concerned the new policy could violate it.

The original resolution drawn up by the district’s attorney included a provision for a space with a speaker phone for the public, but the two commissioners now on the board chose to strike that portion, said Smith, who opted not to run for reelection when her six-year term expired last fall. No one else filed for the seat and it remains open.

The debate over the conference call policy was one factor in her decision not to run again, Smith said.

“In my view, we defied the AG, the MRSC and our own attorney’s opinions,” Smith said. “This is all about public access…that’s what it’s about.

“Transparency should be our golden targets. Let’s do what’s best for public access.”

Helleson said that the change possibly saves money. And she hopes that by having the quarterly face-to-face meetings, more meaningful discussions can occur.

Helleson said that the district would pay about $600 a month for the stipends for the commissioners, the recorder and to have the chief engineer for the district (who lives in Seattle) come to the meetings.

The meeting space at the Port Ludlow Fire Department is offered to the PLDD free of charge each month, said fire Chief Brad Martin.

Commissioners still can collect their stipends for phoning into the meetings and the recorder does as well, but they are saving money by not bringing in the engineer, Smith said.

“I think it’s just a matter of convenience for the commissioners,” Smith said.

Legal consultant Paul Sullivan with the MRSC said in an email issued on June 14: “In my opinion there must be a single place that the public can go to see or hear what is going on at the meeting.

“Without a single location where the public could go, I think the meeting might be a violation of the OPMA.

“I think there is a danger in holding meetings in such fashion,” Sullivan said. “It is, of course, a decision of the board.”

On June 21, Krier said in an email sent to Smith: “In order to attend a meeting of a public body subject to the OPMA, a member of the public needs to only walk in and sit down at the meeting office or other physical location, and then he/she can listen to the discussion.”

In a follow-up email sent July 29, Krier reiterated the need for a speaker phone for the board to remain compliant.

“If a member or members of a governing body subject to the OPMA attends/attend a meeting only remotely, the agency needs to have a speaker phone available in the room at the meeting location,” Krier said.

The quarterly in-person meetings will be at 10 a.m. on April 9, July 9 and Oct. 9 this year at the Port Ludlow Fire Hall at 7650 Oak Bay Road, Port Ludlow.

The conference call meetings will be at 10 a.m. In addition to this Thursday, calls will be March 12, May 14, June 11, Aug. 13, Sept. 10, Nov. 12 and Dec. 10, according to pldd.org.

The drainage district elections are based upon land ownership. The total number of registered property owners within the PLDD is approximately 1,225, said Quinn Grewell, Jefferson County election coordinator.

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Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at zjablonski@peninsuladailynews.com.

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