Opinion

Community volunteers must abide by the laws

For more than 14 years, our community council has been officially recognized by King County as an Unincorporated Area Council (UAC). Today there are six official UACs, each incorporated separately, with separate written contracts, and each separately created by a King County Council motion.

These UACs were created to empower the communities they serve, currently representing more than 103,000 King County citizens. As governmental entities performing governance functions, UACs are required to comply with two specific state laws: RCW 42.30, the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), and RCW 42.56, the Public Records Act (PRA). All elected/appointed board members should know these laws.

Our community council directors have had to comply with these laws for many years — just like our other volunteers who manage our school board, fire district, cemetery district, water district, airport district, sewer district, etc. So what’s it all about when all nine council board members quit when informed by both the Washington State attorney general and the King County prosecuting attorney that they must comply with these laws? Let’s take a closer look.

First, Open Public Meetings Act states:

All public commissions, boards, councils, committees, subcommittees, departments, divisions, offices, and all other public agencies of this state and subdivision thereof exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of this chapter that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. (RCW42.30.010)

Second, the Public Records Act says:

This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected. In the event of conflict between the provisions of this chapter and any other act, the provisions of this chapter shall govern. (RCW 42.56.030)

In passing both laws, the Legislature articulated its belief:

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. (RCW 42.30.010 and RCW 42.56.030)

For years we’ve known that these laws apply to all our friends and neighbors who volunteer their time governing the affairs of our community, whether they be the school board, water district or even the cemetery district. Noncompliance with these laws because they are “volunteers” is no excuse, and these volunteers are welcome to quit at any time if unable or unwilling to comply. These laws require that the actions of these public servants be transparent, accountable and open (i.e., the “tao” of governance).

Volunteers who conduct open public meetings and keep appropriate records should have no cause for concern. They provide a valuable community service for which we should all be very thankful. Democracy is not a one-way street. Democracy is not a spectator sport. In an effective and efficient democracy, we are all accountable to be both educated and engaged. Educated: informed about issues impacting our community, consulted by the governing bodies and involved; and engaged: collaboration and empowerment.

Let’s look at this as a great opportunity for our community council (which is tasked with grasping and explaining the big picture of our community) to become reorganized, reconnected and revitalized about the economic, social and environmental issues and challenges ahead of us. This opportunity should not be missed or minimized.

Today we need a minimum of nine talented and dedicated volunteers to serve as an interim board of directors — individuals who are willing to comply with both the OPMA and PRA, working together for the benefit of our community. Please consider joining me in helping reestablish our community council as that vital part of our civic dialogue and an instrument for future community planning.

— Thomas Bangasser is an Islander and business consultant.

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