Politics & Government

Olympia City Councilwoman Karen Rogers' community meetings under fire

Olympia City Councilwoman Karen Rogers, pictured talking to voters in 2009, was at the center of a debate last week over how council members should be allowed to use city resources. Rogers has promoted her community meetings on the council's website and recently asked a few city staff members to attend the functions.
Olympia City Councilwoman Karen Rogers, pictured talking to voters in 2009, was at the center of a debate last week over how council members should be allowed to use city resources. Rogers has promoted her community meetings on the council's website and recently asked a few city staff members to attend the functions. The Olympian

OLYMPIA - Olympia City Council members have expressed concerns that Councilwoman Karen Rogers' community meetings, which she has been holding every two or three months, are taking up too much staff time and that she is using the city's website to promote them.

The council voted 4-3 last week to amend its internal guidelines to say that members should avoid tasking city staff with work outside of their normal hours and that individual members get consensus or approval from the council before posting material on the Web. The guidelines aren’t legally binding but are the rules under which council members agree to conduct business.

Voting in favor were Stephen Buxbaum, Rhenda Strub, Craig Ottavelli and Stephen Langer. Voting against were Rogers, Mayor Doug Mah and Jeannine Roe.

Rogers has been holding the forums for about a year and, unlike other council members, has her own “update page” on the city website to publicize them and other issues.

Council members discussed the issue for more than an hour late in the evening at their last meeting of the year. Comments were taken from a meeting video.

“The question that I’m raising is, Should we be asking staff at all to attend our personal events?” Ottavelli said.

One issue is that Rogers invited Assistant City Manager Jay Burney and finance director Jane Kirkemo to her latest forum, held at 6:30 p.m. last Thursday at City Hall.

“When a single council member asks a member of senior management to participate in an event, it’s very difficult for senior management to say no,” Strub said. “And I think it’s extraordinary to ask them to stay late to participate in individual events.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate.”

Rogers said her forums take very little staff time. Kirkemo and Burney were invited to spend 30 minutes. Before then, only City Manager Steve Hall had attended one of her meetings, and he volunteered his time, she said. Posting the minutes of the forums online takes Cathie Butler, the city’s communications manager, about 20 or 25 minutes, Butler said. City Attorney Tom Morrill said he reviews them, but that they take minimal time.

“Cathie, I know that those 20 minutes every two months are killing you,” Rogers said sarcastically. “So that’s a huge staff drain. Stop, stop smiling, Tom (Morrill). I see you right there. So I don’t see that as being a staff drain.”

Mah said he was concerned the forums may appear inappropriate if Rogers campaigns for office again.

Rogers said she checked with the state Public Disclosure Commission and that her forums are proper.

“This isn’t unique. This is a very standard practice for an elected official, and I choose to do this,” she said. “It’s transparent, it’s open government, and it’s information sharing and it’s creating a feedback loop. And not only that, people feel heard, so the question is, Why wouldn’t we do this?”

Strub said Rogers is creating the appearance that her forums are speaking for the full council.

“I actually had a person say to me, ‘I already testified on that matter; I went to that meeting put on by council member Rogers.’ I had to explain to them you weren’t testifying, you weren’t on the record, your issue was not officially recorded and you haven’t spoken to the council.”

Langer expressed concern about two issues: using city resources and posting notices on the city website.

“I have a problem with both of them actually, because I think that, again, it’s not necessarily what the intention is, that it’s the perception that I’m concerned about,” he said.

Buxbaum raised similar concerns. “I don’t think that it’s appropriate for a single council member to draw on staff resources for individual forums.”

Roe echoed Buxbaum’s concerns about using staff time.

Rogers said that she is acting as a public official and warned that state law makes it a gross misdemeanor for people to interfere with her duties. She mentioned that Mah has held a public forum, which Mah acknowledged.

“I know he did because I was here and there were city staff, so this hasn’t been objected to before, and for it to start now, then I’m wondering: Am I being specifically targeted? And can I make that claim? And I bet I could and I bet I could make it successfully. And that’s the kicker right there. And I know you’re smiling, but it’s true. I could potentially do that, and that’s my point.”

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 mbatcheldor@theolympian.com

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