Does Lacey City Council have a transparency problem?

All eyes are on Lacey City Council these days as it takes steps to address homelessness — a subject that sparks support, scorn, fear and anger. Combine those emotions and you have a controversial topic.

And controversy generates public interest.

The council is getting emails and phone calls from residents about a number of things tied to homelessness: the proposed changes to the city’s emergency housing regulations, the approval of a recent camping ban ordinance and separate parking ordinance, or the steps taken toward creating temporary overnight parking for those living out of their RVs.

“Everyone is feeling it (on the council) and staff, too,” councilwoman Carolyn Cox said.

But the council hasn’t operated as transparently and clearly as possible under this level of scrutiny, including at a recent council meeting where the council held a key discussion about where to put temporary overnight parking. The public process also has been confusing, and a long-standing policy of not allowing public comment on agenda items has been questioned.

The Olympian reached out to several members of the council for this story. All said there was no intent to hide things from the public, but some acknowledged that things could have been handled differently and better. Some called for change. And some remain unclear about what exactly emerged from that earlier discussion.

A City Council agenda

For Lacey City Council’s regular council meeting on Aug. 22, the published agenda did not identify a council work session.

Once the council meeting was under way, the work session was added to the agenda and the meeting took place after the regular meeting was over. The topic of the work session was not mentioned, even though most, if not all, council members knew what was to be discussed.

“I believe so,” said Cox about whether the council knew the work session topic.

The Olympian later learned that the 40-minute discussion focused on creating a temporary overnight parking area in Hawks Prairie on an unfinished road off Marvin Road Northeast called Main Street. It’s near the outdoors store Cabela’s.

Washington Coalition for Open Government board president Toby Nixon said the council did nothing illegal on Aug. 22. Councils have a huge amount of flexibility when it comes to their regular meeting agendas, he said.

But in the spirit of fair public engagement and transparency, the city made a mistake by not making the work session and its topic clear on the agenda. Lacey residents should be able to see that the topic will be addressed, so they can share their opinions in phone calls or emails with the council before the meeting, he said.

“They’re effectively meeting in secret,” Nixon said. “It breeds distrust.”

Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder said it was a question of timing. The city had been leaning toward putting the temporary overnight parking at the undeveloped Greg Cuoio Park off Carpenter Road Northeast. But when the cost estimates were too high for that site, the council needed to shift its attention to Main Street, and that required a last-minute work session after the agenda was published, Ryder said.

He said not mentioning the topic of the work session that night was “just an oversight.”

Ryder told The Olympian the council is “never trying to hide anything from the public,” adding that council transparency has come a long way since he joined it in 2010. When he joined the council, members didn’t even have their own city email addresses and phone numbers.

But Deputy Mayor Cynthia Pratt and Councilwoman Cox think things could have been handled differently on Aug. 22.

“The public has every right to know that we are having an additional work session,” Cox said. “It’s not that hard.”

At the City Council’s Sept. 12 meeting, the council had another work session that followed the regular meeting. This time it was published on the agenda, and when Mayor Ryder reminded the council about it, Cox asked him to explain it. He did.

Why didn’t Cox do that on Aug. 22? “I just didn’t pick up on it before,” she said.

Councilman Lenny Greenstein added that the way the Aug. 22 meeting unfolded “wasn’t done with any intent to hide it from the public.”

“We’re trying to be open but this process (to address homelessness) is very difficult and it has a lot of moving parts,” he said.

Are you confused?

The public also might be puzzled by homelessness-related actions the council has taken before all the details have been worked out.

Over the summer, the council approved a camping ban ordinance before it created a place to send the homeless — and that ordinance can’t be enforced until they do because of a federal court ruling called Martin v. Boise. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark ruling saying that if a city doesn’t have enough shelter beds available, enforcing a camping ban violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

More recently, the council approved a parking ordinance that limits the parking of RVs and commercial vehicles to no more than four hours on public right-of-way and in parking lots. If you have a permit, you can exceed that time limit, except the city hasn’t worked out the details on the permit process.

Councilman Michael Steadman said he doesn’t like the piecemeal approach, but it’s better to do something than nothing.

“We have to take some steps, or we’re not moving forward,” Greenstein added.

One reason they passed the camping ban ordinance was to allow police to at least engage with those camping on public property to help determine their housing situations, Mayor Ryder said.

Deputy Mayor Pratt wishes the parking ordinance and a temporary permit process had been passed at the same time, she said. But she also knows that city staff is trying to be careful and deliberate, she said.

The council approved the parking ordinance on Sept. 12. Catherine Frisbee of Roy, who recently was living out of vehicle in the Lacey City Hall parking lot, said she wanted to speak out against the ordinance that night but was unable to because of a long-standing council policy that does not allow public comment on items already on the agenda.

Washington Coalition for Open Government board president Nixon thinks the city’s comment policy might violate the First Amendment right to free speech.

“You can only address time, place and manner (of public comment),” he said. “You can’t restrict speech on the basis of the content.”

There are exceptions, however, he said. If there’s a quasi-judicial matter before the council — for example, an appeal that comes before the council — public comment is not allowed.

Mayor Ryder contends the city is often dealing with quasi-judicial matters and does make exceptions. If a number of people show up to speak about something on the agenda, he has allowed public comment to take place, he said.

But some council members are open to change.

Cox, Greenstein and Steadman all voiced support for changing the comment policy.

“I don’t love that approach,” said Greenstein about limiting comment to things that aren’t on the agenda. “I want to hear from the people, because for me, that’s a big part of our role. I’m a strong proponent of what people have to say.”

Deputy Mayor Pratt worries that to change the public comment process would make council meetings longer.

Is Main Street a done deal?

During the Aug. 22 work session that was added to the agenda, the discussion focused on what would be done to prepare the Main Street site for temporary overnight parking, including fencing, security cameras, garbage service and a security service that would check in on the location.

Cox asked whether there needed to be a public hearing on the Main Street site, but City Manager Scott Spence said they were not making a land-use decision that would require public notification.

Deputy Mayor Pratt said Thursday she thinks the Main Street proposal will come before the council again for approval.

But Spence said “not necessarily.”

The council-approved parking ordinance on Sept. 12 allows for an exception like the overnight parking at Main Street, he said. Yet nowhere on that Sept. 12 council meeting agenda did it make reference to Main Street.

And when will RVs begin to park there?

“The site should be ready by the end of the month,” Spence said Thursday.

Rolf has worked at The Olympian since August 2005. He covers breaking news, the city of Lacey and business for the paper. Rolf graduated from The Evergreen State College in 1990.