Open government coalition honors Olympia planning commissioner

A member of the Olympia Planning Commission was recognized for taking a stance on open public meetings, but not everyone applauded.

Judy Bardin received a Key Award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that defends open-government laws. She was honored for blowing the whistle on a series of private meetings between other commissioners and developers.

But the award drew stinging comments from her fellow commissioners, who defended the meetings as legal and said they felt maligned by her “false accusations.”

In March, Bardin objected to two off-the-record meetings that had taken place this year between developers and planning commission members. Bardin said the private meetings had compromised the commission’s integrity because one participant, developer Jim Morris, had an interest in a proposed zoning amendment. Bardin urged commissioners to table the amendment, which would have expanded the maximum size of commercial buildings near Kaiser Road and Harrison Avenue.

City planners said the amendment was not discussed at either meeting, and there was no quorum of commissioners. However, the proposed zoning change has since been tabled indefinitely.

“I felt it was the right thing to do,” Bardin told The Olympian about her objections. “Everybody’s much more cognizant of the issue.”

Coalition board member David Seago presented the award to Bardin at Monday’s meeting, and said the all-volunteer planning commission is “one of the most unsung positions in city government.” Seago, who is a retired News Tribune editorial page editor, noted that most violations of open meeting laws occur because of unfamiliarity with the requirements.

“This is in recognition for the stand (Bardin) took earlier this year when the commission took what we call serial public meetings,” Seago said Monday. “They were not open to the public, and they should have been.”

However, not everyone agreed. Commissioner Carole Richmond said the award discredits the rest of the planning commission. Richmond said those two meetings — held Jan. 31 and March 3 — were intended to provide the commission with more information on barriers to development in downtown Olympia.

He quoted an email from a legal consultant with the Municipal Research Services Center, who maintained that “less than a quorum” of planning commissioners can meet with developers without violating the Open Public Meeting Act.

“My concern is that false accusations are not helpful. They are detrimental to the city and the commission and the work we’re trying to do,” Richmond told The Olympian. “We have been ethical and honest with everyone.”

Commissioner Jerry Parker said Bardin’s comments have maligned the commission and staff with unfounded allegations. Speaking via conference call at the meeting, Parker called the recognition “inappropriate and unfortunate,” and said it rewards “destructive behavior.”

During public comment Monday, a handful of citizens praised Bardin’s actions as courageous. Olympia resident Calvin Johnson also thanked the commissioners for setting an example for open government.

“The city of Olympia goes beyond the call of duty, not just with open government, but by involving citizens,” he said. “Thank you all for volunteering your time.”

In June, the planning commissioners participated in an open government training session, as required by the new Open Government Trainings Act.