Anthrax scare in Spokane causes legal furor

An anthrax scare that closed the Spokane, Wash., City Hall may have caused a city council meeting being held there to be illegal under state law.

The city council of Spokane, Wash., met on Monday after the city hall was closed to the public due to an anthrax scare. Spokane City Council meetings must be open to the public, according to state law, the Spokane Spokesman-Review reports.

Police and firefighters were called to Spokane City Hall after an employee found a white powdery substance in a package of office supplies in the city’s planning department. City employees in the area, including the mayor and city administrator, were told to stay away until the all clear was given.

Others were told to keep working, but the public were asked to leave and kept out of the building, ostensibly to control traffic flow, according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

Firefighters entered the building in hazmat suits and tested the material, which turned out to be 93 percent cornstarch, Battalion Chief Bob Green of the Spokane Fire Department told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. Cornstarch is often used to prevent envelopes from sticking together. he said.

City spokeswoman Marlene Feist sent out a news release five minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin. It stated that the meeting would go on despite the closure. The meeting ended around the same time firefighters gave the all clear, about an hour later.

City Councilman Steve Corker told the Spokesman-Review that he was advised by the city’s legal staff that the meeting could continue as long as the vote on routine items was postponed until the council’s evening session.

“We weren’t sure if people were allowed in or not,” Assistant City Attorney Mike Piccolo told the Spokesman-Review, claiming it was unclear how responders were dealing with the situation right before the meeting began.

Feist noted that the city cable station carried the meeting live and that there was no public testimony scheduled.

Greg Overstreet, a private lawyer and former open government ombudsman in the state attorney general’s office., told the Statesman-Review that state law only prohibits public attendance during an executive session or in cases of disorderly conduct. Even if no votes are held, the meetings are required to be open.

“It would be a terrible precedent if local governments could lock the doors and tell people to just watch it on TV,” Overstreet told the Spokane Spokesman-Review.