January 7, 1996 in Nation/World

Spokane School Board Regularly Breaks Meetings Law Casual Chats Draw State Auditor’s Attention

Carla K. Johnson Staff writer
 
Tags:ethics

The Spokane School Board violated the state’s open meetings law by discussing the timing of a member’s resignation during a private lunch.

In addition, the board appears to routinely break the law by sitting down privately with Superintendent Gary Livingston before regular sessions.

State Auditor Brian Sonntag said his office will review the board’s habit of meeting privately.

“I want to look for any way possible to open the doors of government and allow the public in, the least of which is conducting the meetings of public boards in public,” Sonntag said.

The 1971 Open Public Meetings Act requires government boards to deliberate, discuss and make decisions in public.

Livingston and two board members described the premeeting gatherings and postmeeting lunches as informal, unplanned and proper. They said the premeeting sessions are social times in a room where board members congregate to hang coats and check mailboxes.

“This board is sensitive about public input,” Livingston said.

“They hold public forums, TV call-in shows. They just don’t do business behind closed doors.”

Chip Holcomb, an assistant state attorney general, said informal gatherings among board members that include business discussions violate state law.

“It is not appropriate to have premeeting meetings, if that is what is going on,” Holcomb said. “And the discussion over lunch revolving around the continued service of a board member was not appropriate.”

Former board member John Warn, who resigned last month, said he told the four other board members at lunch of his plans to step down. He said they tried to talk him into waiting until after the district’s Feb. 6 levy election.

Board President Terrie Beaudreau confirmed Warn announced his plans over lunch. She said Livingston suggested Warn wait until after the levy vote.

“It’s not something we planned, that we would go to lunch and talk about John retiring,” Beaudreau said. “The bottom line is it’s common courtesy to tell his fellow board members before he tells the world and we appreciated that.”

The board’s private get-togethers, combined with a lack of debate during public meetings, raise questions about how openly the board conducts its business.

For example, the board made more than 200 decisions during official meetings in 1995 without a single “no” vote. The board voted unanimously all but twice; those were votes in which one member abstained.

Some votes were inconsequential - approving minutes, changing meeting times and naming September “Voter Education Month.”

Other votes included big-ticket items. During 1995, the board awarded $13.6 million in bids and contracts, approved $31.3 million in completed building projects and endorsed $311,379 in construction change orders.

Besides overseeing the Spokane School District’s $190 million operating budget, the board approves all hiring, firing and workers’ contracts for the third-largest employer in Spokane County.

Board meetings always run smoothly, with district administrators presenting proposals and board members asking a few questions, then voting “yes.”

Do the chummy premeeting sessions in a comfortable room near Livingston’s office pave the way to unanimous decision-making?

Board members said no. They may study materials or chat, but they don’t conduct business. They describe the light discussion of district matters as harmless.

“If there are questions that surface at the last minute, that’s a chance to ask Gary or the other board members,” said board member Rob Fukai. “It’s not like we’re mapping out strategies or that kind of stuff.”

Livingston said premeeting topics might include PTA meetings and Spokane City Council news.

In the future, Livingston said he will advise board members to make sure that no more than two are in the room at a time to hang up their coats.

“If there’s an appearance of impropriety, let’s just dissolve the appearance,” he said. “It’s something that’s been going on forever.”

Holcomb, of the state Attorney General’s office, said most violations of the law occur out of ignorance. “They may have gotten into the habit of doing this,” he said.

Pam Behring, president of the Spokane Area League of Women Voters, said she trusts the board acted in good faith and now will drop its informal meetings.

“Sometimes people aren’t aware of what these actions constitute,” Behring said. “We have a good school board and it’s reflected in the good school system we have.”

All states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have open meeting laws, also called “sunshine laws.”

Washington’s law explains the reasons for open meetings:

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

The law requires public agencies to set times for regular open meetings and give notice of special meetings to the news media.

Agencies may hold closed-door sessions only during regular meetings and only under special circumstances: discussions of lawsuits, real estate deals or an employee’s performance, for example. The agency must first announce the reason for a closed session.

The board’s unpublicized private sessions violate the law, said Michael Killeen, a Seattle attorney who handles public access issues for a number of Washington newspapers.

“This is not a tricky question,” Killeen said. “It’s a pretty straightforward violation as you’ve described it. I don’t see how they can explain their way around it.”

Killeen said a 1971 attorney general’s opinion stated the law applies to informal meetings, even when no votes are taken.

Beaudreau said board members carefully abide by the law.

“The thing is when we meet, some of us, in that boardroom ahead of time, there might be three of us, but it’s never the whole board,” Beaudreau said.

But three board members discussing an issue privately violates the law, experts said. Three members constitute a quorum of the five-member board.

“Even when something’s discussed between two of us, almost never, I could just say, never, do we talk about something on the agenda that day,” Beaudreau said. “If we do, it’s between (one person) and me, it’s not a discussion between all five of us.”

The board’s unanimity comes through studying materials and telephone calls, she said.

Beaudreau defended one-on-one conversations about voting. She said members may have personal reasons for their votes that they dislike sharing in public.

As an example, she described how she telephoned each member last August to tell them why she disapproved of a date-rape videotape under consideration.

“I told them how I felt and asked them to look at the material,” she said. Other board members agreed and removed the videotape.

Seattle attorney Killeen said the law’s purpose is to get discussions on record “so citizens can see who spoke about what issues.”

“It’s deliberately inefficient and perhaps lends itself to some divisiveness,” Killeen said. “But that’s the trade-off that’s already been made through the state Legislature (in the open meetings law).”

, DataTimes MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. TEAM PLAYERS During 1995, the Spokane School Board made more than 200 unanimous decisions with little debate. The decisions included these items: On Jan. 25, the board approved change orders on construction projects at Stevens Elementary, Ferris High School and Chase Middle School worth $69,208. On Feb. 22, the board OK’d the purchase of $314,814 worth of computer software and hardware. On July 25, the board approved an operating budget of $190 million for 1995-96. On Sept. 6, the board approved a three-year contract with the Spokane Education Association. The contract granted 4 percent raises in pass-through money from the state, setting salaries at $22,000 to $46,000. On Sept. 13, the board approved a $1.9 million contract for energy and air quality work at three schools and the Spokane Skills Center.

2. PRIVATE MEETINGS A reporter saw the Spokane School Board meet three times without the public present: Nov. 22, 1995: Shortly before an official meeting, members sat talking with Superintendent Gary Livingston around a coffee table in the board’s workroom at district headquarters. The small fourth-floor room near Livingston’s office is equipped with a television, a typewriter, a tape recorder and comfortable chairs. Dec. 13, 1995: Shortly before a regular board meeting, all five members came from a fourth-floor meeting with Livingston and Associate Superintendent Cynthia Lambarth. Dec. 27, 1995: Fifteen minutes before the regular board meeting, four board members sat and talked with Livingston in the workroom. Only board member Christie Querna did not attend that meeting.

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. TEAM PLAYERS During 1995, the Spokane School Board made more than 200 unanimous decisions with little debate. The decisions included these items: On Jan. 25, the board approved change orders on construction projects at Stevens Elementary, Ferris High School and Chase Middle School worth $69,208. On Feb. 22, the board OK’d the purchase of $314,814 worth of computer software and hardware. On July 25, the board approved an operating budget of $190 million for 1995-96. On Sept. 6, the board approved a three-year contract with the Spokane Education Association. The contract granted 4 percent raises in pass-through money from the state, setting salaries at $22,000 to $46,000. On Sept. 13, the board approved a $1.9 million contract for energy and air quality work at three schools and the Spokane Skills Center.

2. PRIVATE MEETINGS A reporter saw the Spokane School Board meet three times without the public present: Nov. 22, 1995: Shortly before an official meeting, members sat talking with Superintendent Gary Livingston around a coffee table in the board’s workroom at district headquarters. The small fourth-floor room near Livingston’s office is equipped with a television, a typewriter, a tape recorder and comfortable chairs. Dec. 13, 1995: Shortly before a regular board meeting, all five members came from a fourth-floor meeting with Livingston and Associate Superintendent Cynthia Lambarth. Dec. 27, 1995: Fifteen minutes before the regular board meeting, four board members sat and talked with Livingston in the workroom. Only board member Christie Querna did not attend that meeting.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email