by Richard Uhlhorn
Ann Bennett – WCIA Executive Director presented the Chelan City Council a series of Do’s and Don’ts as council members. The WCIA (Washington Cities Insurance Authority) is a public entity with 163 members and provides Cities with liability coverage up to $25 million per occurrence.
The City has been a member of this insurance pool since 1987. “I remember when Chelan had a Police Department,” she said. Eighty percent of all municipalities are in the pool.
She warned the Council members that acting outside of their role was a liability risk, but that acting as a body as a whole gave each member individual immunity from lawsuits.
“You must be fair and impartial,” said Bennett. She added that council members should never be influenced by outside parties. “Be very careful you don’t influence a project.” She named one such mistake that ended up with a $10 million dollar verdict.
She also mentioned a case where the Mayor revoked a developer’s permit to continue a project after which the developer sued and won. “There are problems when you go outside the law,” said Bennett. In this case the insurance carrier did not pay.
“The cost of litigation is not cheap,” said Bennett. When it comes to personnel issues, Bennett stated that the Mayor has the authority to hire, fire and discipline. “As a council, you are representing the City… you may disagree, but it is safer to stay out of that executive role.”
If there is a complaint to a Council member about harassment or discrimination, that should be taken to the Mayor or City Administrator who are obligated to do something.
She also remarked that Council members should never misrepresent a City’s decisions. “If you don’t have an answer, say, I don’t know, but I will direct you to the right person.”
Bennett told the Council that it is fine to talk to a constituent, but if it is an issue that needs addressing, ask to staff to research to determine solutions. “Always avoid making inflammatory statements.”
She also remarked that executive sessions should not show up on the front page of the newspaper. “If the other side knows exactly what was said in executive session, it jeopardizes the (city’s) defense.”
“Be very mindful of what you are writing in Emails,” she added. She encouraged council members to not use their personal computers for City email messages. “When you are working on behalf of the City on your personal computer, there is no privacy. It is always best to use the City’s system.”
Bennett also said that Facebook, Twitter and other other social media platforms are tricky and are all new areas of the law. “Anything you write becomes public record.”
While Council members are encouraged to engage constituents, the warning is to never make promises. Councilman Ty Witt asked about quasi-judicial issues. City Attorney Quentin Batjer replied, “We’ve offloaded a lot of this to the Hearing Examiner. The City shouldn’t be sitting here as a quasi-judicial body.”
Councilman Peter Jamtgaard asked whether it was appropriate to list and remove options from a developer’s project. City Planner Craig Gilroy replied, “If you want to change the code to help a developer… change the code.” He then reminded the Council that they can only take action on what is before them… they can’t change what is already permitted.