WALLA WALLA — City Council Member Shane Laib’s temporary employment at state Sen. Michael Baumgartner’s Olympia office is forcing an issue that had been overlooked for years by the City Council.
On Wednesday night, Council Members Conrado Cavazos, Jerry Cummins and Laib were absent. And for the first time in what could be decades, all three absences were left unexcused.
“I am not prepared any longer to excuse or even vote myself on excusing Council members until council has adopted some guidelines for us,” Council member Barbara Clark said at the meeting.
Traditionally, Council members have excused one another from absences through a vote. Usually the vote is preceded by a brief explanation for the absence, but sometimes no reason was given.
It is uncertain how many years the practice has taken place, but Union-Bulletin reporters who covered Council meetings from late 2001 to 2004 and from 2009 to present could not recall when a Council member’s absence had not been excused.
The issue started percolating when Laib announced before a January Council retreat he would take a temporary position in Olympia during the legislative session. What followed was a dialogue about whether it was appropriate to miss three months of meetings, according to Council members Clark and Cavazos and minutes from that meeting.
So far this year Laib has missed the last two Council Meetings — as well as a number of work sessions and committee meetings and the Council retreat — but Wednesday was the first unexcused absence for him, as well as for Cavazos and Cummins.
Should the three Council Members have two more consecutive unexcused absences, all three could be voted off the Council, according to state law.
Enforcement of RCW 35A.12.060 is rare, and the norm tends to be to excuse without question, said Bob Meinig of the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washinton.
“It is a common practice to rubber stamp absence of Council members and a lot of cities don’t have policies as to whether or not to excuse,” Meinig said.
Meinig noted a recent exception when Lynnwood, Wash., where City Council member Kim Cole was removed from office for missing three consecutive meetings.
The HeraldNet, which originally reported on the situation last September, said prior to being voted out of her seat, Cole had missed 18 Council business meetings and work sessions in 2012.
In an interview last month, Laib said he was still working with the city to determine his options, he was unavailable to comment prior to publication of this article.
At the Wednesday meeting, Clark asked for the city to address the issue of what can be considered excused absences.
Being on city business, illness, family emergency and even some vacation time could all be considered excusable, but Clark said the problem is the city has no policy to clear up the matter.
“It just seems to me not good practice for these decisions to be made on the fly. I think that it is important for the Council members to know what the expectations are and when it is excusable to be at a meetings and when not,” Clark said.
Clark also asked the city to look at the Council’s policy on travel expenses, another area in which Clark and Council member Chris Plucker said there was a lack of guidance.