On June 11 in Yakima, a Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce luncheon was held that was called “State of the County.” The meeting addressed various county issues and was attended by all three Yakima County Commissioners, two state legislators and all candidates for county commissioner.
The $30 luncheon may seem benign, but Elizabath Hallock, owner of Sweet Relief Cannabis Boutique in Yakima and candidate for the 14th Legislative District House seat, disagreed. Hallock, whose background is in law, filed a lawsuit against the Yakima County Commissioners alleging that they violated Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).
The commissioners discussed several issues pertaining to Yakima County policies at the meeting. These topics included cannabis, water rights and a new large infrastructure project. One of the subjects up for discussion was whether or not commissioners would seek another advisory vote on cannabis. On Nov. 7, 2017 voters passed an advisory vote to ban cannabis businesses in unincorporated areas. Each commissioner in attendance verbally stated that they would not seek a second advisory vote, according to attendees. Several notable Yakima County cannabis business owners were not in attendance or aware of the meeting.
According to Hallock, the luncheon failed to comply with the OPMA on several grounds. The first procedural requirement, according to the OPMA, is that “all meetings must be open to the public.” By charging $30, Hallock alleges that this meeting was not open to the public, but restrictive to non-members of the chamber who couldn’t afford to attend.
The second procedural requirement of OPMA reads, “a member of the public may not be required as a condition of attendance to register his or her name or other information, or complete a questionnaire, or be required to fulfill any other condition to be allowed to attend.” Hallock also alleges that this requirement was violated, due to the fact that all chamber luncheons require registration upon entrance.
Finally, special meetings, which Hallock alleged this chamber meeting qualified as, require that: “notice of the special meeting be ‘prominently displayed’ at the main entrance of the agency’s principal location, and at the meeting site if the meeting will not be held at the agency’s principal location; and posted on the agency’s website,” according to the OPMA.
There was no indication at the chamber meeting that this particular luncheon was a public meeting, according to Hallock. No sign was displayed on the door, and the meeting was not listed on the commissioner’s website, where public meetings would normally be listed. The commissioners claim that it was listed on their calendar.
So what defines a meeting, special or otherwise? According to the OPMA, “joint meetings—regular or special—of two or more county legislative authorities may be held in the county seat of a participating county if the meeting agenda includes an item or items that ‘relate to actions or considerations of mutual interest or concern to the participating legislative authorities.’” According to Hallock, a special meeting is defined as any meeting that is held in addition to the County Commissioners’ regular meetings, which are held every two weeks.
“This isn’t about money. This is about open government.” Hallock told CULTURE. “What I want to see, is the State of the County being held at a time people can attend, and make it free and open to the public. Because it’s so important.”
Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita declined to comment to CULTURE due to the ongoing nature of the lawsuit. Leita previously told the Yakima Herald that he did not believe the meeting violated OPMA because no official vote was held. Yakima County Commissioner Ron Anderson also declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The lawsuit is currently in settlement negotiations. If Hallock wins, she has pledged to give her award to the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group aimed at voter registration.