For months, the public discussion over the proposed Orchard Hills planned development in Twisp has been a model of public process, participation and openness. The complicated nature of the project, its scope and ambition, and its footprint in an established neighborhood all guaranteed that it would draw attention.
That is has — in a healthy way. The public interest in Orchard Hills has been consistent and attentive over more than a year, with attendance at Twisp Planning Commission meetings outstripping that for any public issue in recent memory. People showed up again and again, even after the public testimony part of the process was closed. They wanted to offer their views, hear what the Planning Commission had to say and stay current with its decision-making.
The Planning Commission has steadfastly labored through the process, listening to public comment and receiving and reviewing dozens of written submissions — some quite detailed and researched. Staff has collected all that material as part of the overall record of the planned development’s progress through the prescribed sequence for considering such requests. It’s all available online as part of the Planning Commission’s final recommendation to the Town Council for preliminary approval of the request — with specific conditions that indicated commission members had heard, considered and responded to the public input.
The Planning Commission’s lengthy final report may not have been entirely satisfactory to every interested observer, or to the applicants, but it was hashed out openly while adhering to the town’s code requirements for such proposals. That process may seem cumbersome, but it’s meant to be thorough and serve the public interest. And it happened with full public access to how the decisions were reached.
The Town Council has the final say-so over whether, and under what conditions, preliminary approval will be granted. The public testimony part of the process is now over, and the council doesn’t have to take any more evidence. It is in fact required to make its decisions based on the information provided in the Planning Commission documents, which council members have indicated they intend to parse thoroughly.
The council has the option of conducting its discussion of the Orchard Hills submission publicly. For reasons that, as of this writing, have not been fully spelled out, it has chosen not to. The council’s Tuesday night meeting this week was scheduled to conclude with a “closed session” to discuss the Orchard Hills issue, which excludes the public and press. Unless there was a last-minute change of heart Tuesday night, after the paper went to press, a closed session was expected to occur as advertised.
That is the council’s legal prerogative. There is a provision in the state’s Open Public Meetings Act that allows for quasi-judicial topics — such as consideration of the preliminary approval application — to be discussed in “closed session.” That said, the state code cited by the council notes that a closed session can be called for “That portion of a meeting of a quasi-judicial body which relates to a quasi-judicial matter between named parties as distinguished from [italics ours] a matter having general effect on the public or on a class or group …”
It could be argued that Orchard Hills seems like a matter “having general effect on the public,” and the development’s potential neighbors would seem to be an affected class or group.
The council’s closed-session decision may be legally defensible. It’s just unfortunate “optics,” especially compared to the transparency under which the Planning Commission proceeded. After all this time, at the crucial decision-making juncture, the whole thing goes behind closed doors?
This is an issue of extreme public interest that has been followed with uncommon intensity and, for the most part, civility. The same could be expected going forward. People are showing up, even if they can’t testify, to let public officials know that they are watching.
But a shut-out public surely will have legitimate questions. What is the council going to talk about that it could not talk about openly? How will we know how decisions were reached if we only see the outcome, not the deliberative process? How will the public have confidence that its interests are being served if all they hear is a motion to approve, and a vote?
We have no reason to question the motives of Town Council members; they have been reliably accessible. It just seems baffling that at this point, when the final deliberative body could be operating in full public view, it decides to drop the curtain.
No matter what the outcome, there will be some observers who will forever question how it was derived if the discussions remain closed. Long-term, that does nothing but erode public confidence in the process.