Editorial | Get elected, lose a bit of freedom | Rich Elfers

I was elected to the Enumclaw City Council in November 2008. In January 2009 I attended a workshop for newly elected officials workshop where I was trained in the art of being a good public servant.  Very early in the presentations, I was surprised to learn from the attorney instructing us that now that the voting was done, I, the winner, had just lost several freedoms I had taken for granted.

One of the first freedoms I lost is that I could no longer legally meet with, call, or write emails to more than two other city council members and carry on a conversation without being in violation of the open meetings law.  To do so meant that we had created a quorum and were actually carrying on government business away from the eyes of the public.  I also found out I couldn’t create a chain letter or series of phone calls either. For instance, I couldn’t talk to Jeff, who might call Kevin, who then talked to Mike about an issue before the Council.

I had to be very careful not to send a group email to the entire council without warning them not to reply lest we be in violation of the law. I could not speak or comment if I went to an open house for library annexation if there were three or more other council members present. To do so would constitute a council conversation and would therefore be in violation of the law.

A second thing that I found later in my term is that every email I wrote about city business had to be written with the thought in mind that what I wrote could be published and used against me in any future campaign or could be the basis of a lawsuit.  One veteran council member gave me the good advice to ask myself before I hit the “send” key whether I was willing to see what I had just written in a newspaper. Sometimes it was better to not to reply than to find my words embarrassing me in the media.

When I was sitting in council meetings I found I needed to think through very carefully what I was going to say before I said it because the programs were being broadcast to the viewing public and a thoughtless remark might elicit a caustic reply from our constituents or political pain in the next election.

If we had an executive session I was told we could not share what had been discussed or we would be in violation of the law.  If a reporter asked me a question about it, I’d have to tell him I couldn’t legally respond. When I was interviewed about a city issue by the media, I had to carefully weigh my words—to be very tactful, because my words could be quoted.

I also had to be very sure that I followed all the laws of the city, including getting a cat license each year and making sure I was listed for notification if our renter did not pay their utility bill. I had to set the example.

Was it worth it to lose all those freedoms? Absolutely! I really enjoyed myself trying to decide the best course of action for the city. It requires a lot of work and struggle and research; many of the issues are very complex. It was my privilege to give up a measure of freedom to serve the greater good.

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