Spin Control

Park Board on dawn patrol

Most mornings around 7 a.m., Manito Park is the province of joggers, dog walkers and ducks on “dawn patrol” for healthy eats because the “do not feed” signs have cut back their junk food. But about once a month, it’s the site of a special meeting of the Spokane Park Board.

Some of these 7 a.m. special meetings are almost completely closed to the public. The board convenes, votes to go into executive session, which is the polite term for ordering the public out and shutting the door, and talks about stuff until it comes out of executive session and adjourns.

Stuff like contracts and purchases. Stuff that the public, which for nearly a century has given the Park Board some 8 percent of the city’s general fund, will eventually pay for. To be fair, before the Board actually votes to spend the money, it will hold a public meeting at which the public might come and say “Hey, great idea” or “Bad move, buck-o.” The public gets a second say if the issue comes to the City Council.

Executive sessions are nothing new. The state Open Meetings Law says a body may shut out the public and go behind closed doors for certain things. (Note: The law says “may” not “shall” so these sessions are optional, but it’s rare when a board’s attorney says “What the heck, let the public hear what you’re thinking because, after all, it’s their money.”)

What may be considered unusual about the Park Board, however, is the time and place: 7 a.m., at the Manito Park Garden Center Meeting Room. Not quite, as one critic described, “in the maintenance building next to the flower display,” but not a known landmark like City Hall.

That’s where the board could have been found last Monday, talking about...

... possible changes in a lease for land in the Riverfront Park North Bank with Mobius. Unlike previous special meetings, the board caught flak for the time, the place, the subject and the closed-door format.

Is it a surprise the Park Board is negotiating with Mobius? Probably not for some people; the two have been trying to reach a deal for a couple years to make changes to a contract that’s existed for about a decade.

Is it necessary for the board to discuss negotiations the contract in executive session? Board members and Parks Director Barry Russell say yes, based on advice from their attorney, because it involves discussions of money and real estate.

Is it necessary for the board to discuss it at 7 a.m. at Manito? Board members say yes, because it’s the most convenient time to get together. The board has a regular meeting once a month, on an afternoon at City Hall, but things come up in between times that need their attention.

“I don’t understand why they’re saying 7 o’clock in the morning is bad,” City Councilman Bob Apple said. Lots of organizations and government groups meet before members go to work.

The park building is open at that hour, but City Hall is still locked up and getting members in and out is a hassle, Russell said. The public is invited, providing one doesn’t mind getting up at 7 and driving through the park to the center.

Of course, someone who did that last Monday would have been rewarded for the morning trip by being ordered out of the special meeting after a few minutes when the board went into executive session for the only thing on its agenda.

Under the law, the Park Board or any other government entity can hold a special meeting at 7 a.m. at Manito – or any other time and place – if it provides adequate notice, Tim Ford, the state attorney general’s ombudsman for open meetings said. With proper notice, it could hold the meeting at 2 a.m. in Las Vegas.

A better question, however, might be should it?

Ford has a problem with any board that schedules a special meeting just to turn it into an executive session: “It’s not very accommodating.”

To be fair, not all 7 a.m. meetings have been exclusively executive. In March, it voted in open to ban smoking in all parks and possibly even golf courses – a fairly controversial thing – during an early morning meeting that didn’t have the ban on the agenda. It just kinda came up, a parks spokesperson said later, and board members were there, so they voted to do it. Within weeks, they had to back off of that ban and study it for a year or two.

On the bright side, at least no one on the board has so far argued they are having 7 a.m. meetings because they’re all “morning people” who think so much clearer that time of day.

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