Budget season is a busy time for many cities, but the Black Diamond City Council is skirting right along the edge of some deadlines due to some scheduling conflicts that left the Nov. 17 meeting without a quorum.
Without council members Erika Morgan, Brian Weber and Pat Pepper, the council could not hold the second public hearing on two property tax increase ordinances or the first public hearing on the proposed 2017 preliminary budget.
The budget is due by the end of December, but according to Mayor Carol Benson, the deadline for setting a property tax increase is Nov. 30 as set by RCW 84.52.020.
“We only have a chance to raise property taxes by one percent once a year. If they don’t approve it, we will only get what we got last year,” Benson said after the Nov. 17 meeting. “Technically, the ordinance is supposed to be passed by the 30th of November, but there is a little bit of leeway because the Department of Revenue has to send us exact dollar amounts. They have indicated that they might send us another notice, so then basically we have 12 days from that notice, but we don’t know if they’re going to or not.”
Action on the property tax increase ordinances can happen as soon as the second public hearing is closed.
Because Nov. 17 was the last regularly scheduled meeting of the month, the council moved to continue the meeting, including the public hearings, on Nov. 29, a date which the council majority earlier this month had tried to schedule a special meeting.
The public hearings on Nov. 29 will be quickly followed by another public hearing on the budget just two days later on Dec. 1.
PROPOSED AGENDA CHANGES – NOV. 3
The issue that led up to the quorum-less meeting began late in the Nov. 3 council meeting, when Weber moved to make some changes to upcoming council meeting agendas and dates.
First, Weber said that the Nov. 10 workshop agenda should include a discussion on ordinances regarding property taxes.
Weber also wanted to cancel the Nov. 17 regularly scheduled council meeting, which would mean the public hearings on the property tax ordinances and the preliminary 2017 budget would also be canceled.
Weber then called for a special council meeting for Nov. 28 and move the public hearings to that date.
Finally, Weber wanted to add a review and public comment period regarding the city’s budget to the Dec. 8 workshop.
The reason why Weber wanted to reschedule the Nov. 17 meeting was because both he and Morgan couldn’t attend that meeting.
He pointed out that in 2015, the council rescheduled a regularly scheduled meeting from Dec. 3 to Dec. 7.
Benson replied that was because three council members were going to be gone, and the meeting would be without a quorum, a different scenario than what was currently before the council.
Councilwoman Tamie Deady continued off Benson’s point.
“So this is a personal thing, that you two want to change the whole schedule of your citizens that expect a council meeting on a certain night,” Deady said to Weber. “You want to revamp it for the two of you so, I’m assuming, that Pat Pepper isn’t sitting here without a majority.”
Weber responded that this is why the council has discussion, to see if an alternate night could work for everyone.
Deady pointed out that even with Weber and Morgan gone, there would still be a quorum in session.
“There is no legitimate reason to cancel a meeting when there is still a quorum of the meeting to attend,” Deady said. “It just looks self-serving.”
Pepper did not say during the Nov. 3 meeting that she would be unavailable to come to the Nov. 17 meeting, but said during the Nov. 10 workshop that she won’t be attending.
“The Budget Committee isn’t going to be there,” Pepper said at the workshop. “Why would I go to a meeting when the Budget Committee isn’t there?”
“That is not a good excuse,” Benson replied. “Because the other two people are not going to be there, you can’t attend a meeting?”
Deady jumped on this point, again alleging that Pepper doesn’t want to be at the meeting where she is without Morgan and Weber and thus would be in the minority.
Morgan and Weber’s absence from the Nov. 17 meeting was excused by Benson; Pepper’s was not.
IMPROPER NOTICING, IMPOSSIBLE DEADLINE?
City Clerk Brenda Martinez also spoke up against Weber’s motion to reschedule the public hearings, since she’s in charge of putting out all the public notices necessary to make City Council meetings and public hearings legal.
Martinez said it was not possible for her to legally notice Weber’s changes as written.
State law says special meeting agendas have to be very exact on what’s going to happen during the meeting, Martinez said. This directly conflicted with a line in Weber’s motion, that the Nov. 28 special meeting agenda “will include the rescheduled public hearing on the two property tax notices as well as other items submitted prior to Nov. 11 for inclusion.
“When you write up a public meeting notice for a special meeting, you can’t just put in ‘other items,’ because in a special meeting, you have to say what items of business is going to be conducted,” Martinez said. “As written, I can’t even prepare a hearing notice on this because I don’t know what to include in it.”
The deadline for properly noticing a public meeting was also fast approaching.
In order to legally notice a public hearing for Nov. 29, Martinez would have needed to submit it to the Voice of the Valley newspaper – the newspaper of record for the city – on Nov. 4, and no later.
Brenda said at the Nov. 3 meeting that she was not sure whether submitting the notice on Nov. 4 would satisfy the state’s time requirements. After looking at her calendar on Nov. 17, Martinez said the notice would have been legal if submitted on Nov. 4, so long as her other issues with the specificity of the notice were addressed.
SPECIAL MEETINGS NOT NOTICED BY MAYOR?
When all was said and done on Nov. 3, Weber ended up withdrawing his motion to change the upcoming meeting dates and agendas.
But on Nov. 7, the council majority on called for a special meeting to be held on Nov. 8 to further discuss the council’s future schedule and agendas regarding the budget and other matters, an email from Morgan to Benson reads.
“The special meeting was not noticed by Benson. By this email, I am notifying you (Benson) that I believe that you and the Clerk have a duty to comply with RCW 42.30.080 which grants the Council authority to schedule and conduct Special Council Meetings. This authority is not conditional upon your belief that the Special Meeting is necessary or appropriate,” the email reads.
According to the same email, during the Nov. 10 workshop, the council majority again called for the Nov. 17 meeting to be moved to Nov. 29, since it was by that point clear that the Nov. 17 meeting would be without a quorum.
“It is clear by not that there will not be a quorum of council members on Nov. 17. It is simply a waste of time and money to attempt to convene a meeting,” the email from Morgan to Benson reads. “The public and the staff should not be inconvenienced in this manner. In an earlier correspondence to me you objected to the $180 additional charge associated with noticing special meetings, a rather trivial sum compared to the expense and staff time that would be associated with stubbornly attempting to conduct a meeting despite prior knowledge that a lack of a quorum would preclude any action.”
The special meeting was again not noticed by Benson, although it would not have been legal to re-notice the public hearing for Nov. 29 after the Nov. 4 notice deadline for the Voice of the Valley.
Benson defended not noticing the special meetings because the special meeting agendas were not specific enough to meet state requirements, and because special meetings are for emergency purposes only.