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It's time to reconsider taping executive sessions

Write to the Point


At the risk of calling in the proverbial air strike on my head, here goes.

In 2008, then Attorney General Rob McKenna joined then State Auditor Brian Sonntag to introduce House Bill 3292 – a measure that would have required the taping of executive sessions by the respective legislative body. In a position paper supporting the legislation – which never got out of committee – the conservative-leaning Washington Policy Center cited examples of executive session missteps by elected bodies from the Lewis County Board of Commissioners to the Yelm Fire District.

To that list, I add the Aug. 21 meeting of the Cheney School Board.

Before going further, understand I don’t consider what happened that Wednesday night to be malfeasance or a deliberate intent to deceive. Some of the examples cited by the WPC were clearly done with this in mind, whereas what happened in Cheney was a case of confusion and muddled understanding by individuals who I believe have the highest desire to serve their constituents.

But as Lawrence Lessing wrote in his excellent book “Republic Lost” on campaign financing, “Sometimes good people do bad things.”

At the beginning of the Aug. 21 meeting Director James Whiteley asked under what circumstances he could call an executive session. Board president Suzanne Dolle, along with other board members and Superintendent Dr. Debra Clemens, explained the reasons under law where executive sessions are allowed.

These are spelled out in RCW42.30.110. They include what some refer to as “personnel matters,” but are very specific in language, such as “To evaluate the qualifications of an applicant for public employment or to review the performance of a public employee.”

Clemens also explained typically the need for executive session, whether called for by the district or a board member, is established and space set aside for in an upcoming meeting via an agenda setting meeting. Hindsight being 20/20, that policy should have been adhered to in the August meeting.

The board proceeded with its meeting, which included adjourning for a work session to discuss aspects of a proposed $44.9 million construction bond to fund renovations and modernizations at Cheney High School. During this time good pro and con arguments were laid out for a bond vote in February 2014.

After the discussion Dolle called the regular meeting back into session – and almost immediately Whiteley asked for an executive session. Dolle questioned why Whiteley wanted the session and he replied that it was to “discuss a personnel issue.”

As the board’s next order of business was to make a decision on scheduling the bond vote, Dolle asked if the session could take place after the vote in order to allow the audience, there were five besides me, to go home from the already long meeting (God bless her). Whiteley said he felt the personnel issue was related to the bond resolution, and when Dolle asked “they’re related?” (I’m paraphrasing some), he was emphatic that they were.

The board adjourned into a 45-minute executive session. When they emerged, with not really a whole lot more discussion, they voted 4-1 to push the bond vote to February 2015. Whiteley was the lone no vote, saying even 2015 was too early for him.

In response to a letter I sent protesting the executive session, Clemens said when Whiteley called for the session he did not have access to the proper language, wording it as “to discuss a personnel issue.” She also said it was her “clear understanding” that the discussion in session dealt only with the performance of a public employee and no discussion, or action, took place regarding the bond.

I would like to believe that, but can’t. I keep asking “What does the performance of a public employee have to do with scheduling a public vote on a $44.9 million construction bond?”

And this is where HB3292 would have helped. The bill would have required bodies such as the Cheney School Board to tape their executive sessions, and provide a process of review should questions arise.

In this instance, under HB3292 I would have to convince a court that something took place in executive session that was not right, and the burden is squarely on the petitioner. If the court agreed, the judge would listen to the tape, and if the judge decided in my favor, the tape or portion of the tape would be made available to the petitioner – me – to listen to. If against, that’s the end of the matter.

For the sake of brevity of this column, already longer than I’d like, and starting up a discussion, I invite you to do some research of your own on this issue. For me, taping executive sessions isn’t a matter of establishing wrong doing.

It’s a matter of maintaining trust in government, a trust already significantly damaged, and those who operate it, elected or otherwise. That trust can only be maintained through transparency, a transparency that either proves impropriety, or dispels rumors of its occurrence.

Because sometimes, good people can indeed accidentally do bad things.

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