Cudaback apologizes for what exactly?
MONROE - City Councilwoman Patsy Cudaback spoke to ethics charges brought against her by two fellow councilmen last week.
In a statement read at last week’s council meeting, Cudaback apologized to her colleagues for “coming up to or crossing the line.” A motion was made to accept her statement of apology in order for the council to move on from the distraction. The motion passed 5-0; Cudaback abstained from voting and Councilman Tom Williams was absent.
Councilmen Kurt Goering and Kevin Hanford accused Cudaback at the Oct. 16 meeting of disclosing what they believe was confidential information in a Facebook message they said was not meant to leave the closed doors of a previous meeting’s executive session.
The Facebook message in question didn’t reveal what was discussed in the executive session. It revealed the topic of the discussion, which isn’t illegal.
“I have a really hard time believing a judge or jury would find (Cudaback) guilty of violating (the law). It’s a stretch,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
The primary purpose of the law, Nixon said, is to make it illegal for government officials to act upon confidential information for the purpose of personal gain, such as taking advantage of confidential knowledge of the price of real estate for personal profit.
“She didn’t gain anything from it, no one was hurt, it simply stated” the topic of an executive session, Nixon said.
Tim Ford is the open government ombudsman for the Attorney General Office and informally advises cities on the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. In a 2009 letter to a Puyallup City Council member, he says not all information shared in executive session may be confidential.
“The mere fact that records and information are shared in executive session is not sufficient to create confidentiality,” Ford wrote.
The city isn’t even clear about what it discloses to the public in regards to executive session topics, as pointed out by Cudaback last week.
She said sometimes the city just publishes the RCW (the state law) on its agenda, which a resident then would have to look up to find out the topic to be discussed. Other times, the city publishes the topic matter, such as “potential litigation.”
“I can see where it might be confusing,” Cudaback said, speaking to the city’s inconsistency in disclosing executive session topics.
“In the future, I believe we should keep a list of executive sessions, the topics, exactly what we discussed, or simply state the (state code) and continue to clarify with the city attorney if we have any questions,” Cudaback said.
Ford said the law requires cities to disclose the purpose of an executive session and it should be detailed enough so the public is clear about the topic.
“It must be in plain English,” he said last week.
Merely citing the particular section of state law doesn’t communicate to the lay person what the purpose is since most people haven’t memorized the Revised Code of Washington.
For example, a city going into executive session to discuss actual litigation could disclose the name of the case since lawsuits are public records, Ford said.
Goering and Hanford have their view of the law — and apparently confident in their legal interpretation.
At the Oct. 16 meeting, Goering was ready to find Cudaback guilty and wanted to censure her and impose a $500 fine after reading into the record the ethics complaint that sounded more like a lecture.
“It should be noted that the subject matter disclosed in Councilmember Cudaback’s unauthorized action is irrelevant to tonight’s complaint, as is the level of detail that was inappropriately disclosed,” the complaint says. It goes on to say, “The rules apply to everyone regardless of how long they have served or their gender.”
The rest of the council, including second accuser Hanford, didn’t support Goering’s motion that night to accuse, judge and convict Cudaback.
Tony Balk, a former council member, was in the audience that night and said: “It sounded like a southern lynching to have the accusation and the sentence all in one motion.”
The council pushed back the discussion on the ethics complaint to Nov. 6 because Cudaback hadn’t even received a written copy of the complaint. After a brief executive session last week to discuss the alleged confidential material, Cudaback gave her statement.
“I sincerely apologize to council if they feel that I have come up to the line or crossed the line, that was certainly not my intent,” Cudaback said. “It has always been and will continue to be my duty to engage and communicate with the citizens of Monroe, but still protect the city’s interest.”
Following Cudaback’s statement, Hanford said he “respected Councilmember Cudaback,” and that he “understands that Councilmember Cudaback is appreciated by her community, however, that does not make her above the law.”
Hanford said that from the beginning of his time as a city official, he was under the impression that “everything that is discussed in executive session is always confidential.”
Cudaback has been praised by residents for maintaining an open forum on Facebook, which allowed residents to keep tabs on and comment on city issues.
Since the complaint, Cudaback has decided to stop using her Facebook page to communicate with residents. Instead, she will host community meetings on Friday mornings, 7 to 9, at the Starbucks at 18805 U.S 2. Friday, Nov. 2 was her first meeting.
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