During a Sept. 16 Battle Ground City Council meeting, several council members voiced anger and frustration regarding an opinion piece written by council members Adrian Cortes and Mike Ciraulo that appeared in two area newspapers.
In the column, published in the Sept. 18 issue of The Reflector and the Sept. 10 edition of the Camas-Washougal Post-Record, Cortes and Ciraulo accused fellow council members of possibly violating the Washington State Open Meetings Act by meeting in private to draft changes to the city’s Governance Coordination Manual that would alter the way that council members choose a mayor.
The ordinance, which was approved by a vote of 5-1 during a July 15 meeting, states that the deputy mayor, elected by fellow council members, will automatically become the mayor after two years. Cortes voted against the change and Ciraulo, who had previously voiced opposition to the change, was absent from the July 15 meeting because he was a hiking a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail with his two sons.
In the op-ed piece by Cortes and Ciraulo, the two state that “a majority coalition arbitrarily changed our form of government.” They then go on to say that these changes “voided any vote of a mayor (going against the original intent of the voters 15 years ago), placed restrictions on council member speech and avoided public input because it was deemed ‘not necessary.’”
“This was done without the standard ‘three touch’ practice (discussing an issue in an open meeting three times) appearing to capitalize on the absence of a council member and rushing it through to ensure that limited discussion would occur,” wrote Cortes and Ciraulo. “This action has left a large majority of citizens disenfranchised and with a feeling of an unstable form of governance within their community.”
During the Sept. 16 meeting, Council Member Philip Johnson spoke out against Ciraulo and Cortes, saying that the council doesn’t do anything “arbitrarily” and that the decision was deliberate and voted on. He also brought up Cortes’ and Ciraulo’s statement that the decision appeared to “capitalize on the absence of a council member.”
“We meet the first and third Mondays of the month, we have for years,” Johnson said. “Mr. Ciraulo, you were absent in May (when you were in Mexico) and in July you were on your walk. I appreciate the effort you took into that with your sons and everything else, but the business of the city continues with or without you, with or without me. I will tell you, if I’m ever absent, I haven’t missed a meeting yet, by the way, but if I’m ever absent, please feel free to carry on without me.”
Regarding Ciraulo and Cortes’ accusations that the council members may have violated the Open Meetings Act, Johnson asked Cortes and Ciraulo to do him a “favor” and “put up or shut up.”
On Sept. 22, both Ciraulo and Cortes posted a photo on their personal Facebook pages that shows Johnson putting up a large sign on a fence in the Battle Ground area that reads in large red letters, “Put Up or Shut Up.”
Cortes included this statement with his post of the photo: “With the utmost respect and professional tone I must make this statement. I’m disappointed. Deputy Mayor Shane Bowman and council member Phillip Johnson put up an offensive sign in Battle Ground at the corner of 502/503. Obviously they are referencing the allegation of the violation of the Washington State Open Meetings Act & lack of transparency that was discussed at the last council meeting. They must have forgot that the specifics of the violation were outlined at that meeting and that it is in the hands of the City Attorney. The information has been “put up.” Maybe they should not tell the people of Battle Ground to “shut up.” We (Battle Ground) are so much better than this. Is it wrong to expect that the elected officials serving our city conduct their business in a lawful and transparent manner?”
“You talk about transparency,” Johnson said at the meeting. “There is no transparency with you, gentlemen. Absolutely none. In the future, lay off the character assaults, but I don’t think it’s in your character to do that, whether you’re unable or unwilling.”
Ciraulo responded to Johnson during the meeting, saying he was sorry he felt that way. He urged Johnson and other council members to review the audio recordings of the meeting several months ago during which he said several council members, including Mayor Lisa Walters, referred to private discussions that occurred with the majority.
“Review it for yourself, the evidence is there,” Ciraulo said. “I stand behind what I wrote.”
“Then file a complaint,” Walters responded.
Ciraulo also defended the issue he and Cortes brought up about the changes in the Governance Manual not seeing the “three-touch” principle.
“I specifically requested to multiple council members to ensure we follow (the three-touch principle), knowing I would be back for the third touch,” Ciraulo said. “Obviously, you moved not to follow your own policy.”
Cortes also responded to Johnson and Council Member Alex Reinhold’s comments during the Sept. 16 meeting, saying he found their comments to be “at the height of hypocrisy.” Cortes brought up an incident where he said Reinhold “blatantly accused the Battle Ground Chamber of Commerce of mishandling the hotel/motel tax funds.”
“He (Reinhold) throws all us council (members) under the bus, throws the city manager under the bus and yet he has the nerve to say somehow Mr. Ciraulo and I accuse them of breaking the law, which we did not,” Cortes said. “We simply stated the facts.”
On a Facebook page titled “Battle Ground, WA,” Reinhold commented on a Sept. 18 post by Ciraulo, stating: “You charge people with committing a crime and you don’t give the accused their day in court, it shows the voters your lack of integrity. It’s not about politics, it’s about justice.”
Cortes also said Johnson’s statement about them putting a letter in the newspaper without notifying the rest of the council members first was again “the height of hypocrisy.”
“We have our own mayor putting in op-ed letters where she’s actually calling people out,” Cortes said. We never called anybody out in our letter, but she’s calling people out, being slanderous. Then you have Mr. Johnson writing letters to the editor to support candidates over an incumbent.”
“It’s the First Amendment, sir,” Johnson responded to Cortes.
Cortes then called a point of order, to which Johnson responded, “Yeah, you better.”
“You say you don’t call anyone out,” Johnson said. “You imply, you infer. You don’t have the testosterone to actually call anyone out. I’m pretty much done with you two.”
“We can go back and forth on this all day long,” said Deputy Mayor Shane Bowman during the meeting. “The thing that is most irritating is, I would love for you guys to go on the record and tell me exactly why you have an issue with the form of government, the changes in the Governance Manual that we made. Why you did not want this chance of government.”
Bowman pointed out that arguing and “airing some of our own laundry” is not what’s best for the city.
“It’s been nice and quiet for two years,” Bowman said. “Now election season is rolling around and it’s getting fired up, and in a month a half we’re all going to have to sit here and figure out how we’re going to work together again. This crap’s got to stop.”
Ciraulo did apologize for not notifying the rest of the council beforehand that the letter was going to be in the newspaper.
“That was wrong and it will not happen again,” Ciraulo said. “All I wanted was my say in a public forum. I wasn’t given that opportunity, it’s over. I’m sorry, Mr. Johnson, you’ve just given up on us. We’ve still got a job to do and I intend to keep doing it for as long as I’m seated here.”
City Attorney Brian Wolfe will look into whether or not any council members did indeed violate the Open Meetings Act. This process will consist of reviewing audio recordings of past city council meetings and interviewing council members.