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Air quality hire questioned

Thu., June 22, 2006, midnight

The hiring of Spokane’s new air quality chief appears to have violated state law, legal experts and others said Wednesday.

Bill Dameworth, former environmental manager for timber company Pope & Talbot, was introduced on Monday as the new director of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority.

The air agency’s board never voted on Dameworth’s hiring and offered him the position after a “consensus” was reached in a private meeting.

At issue is whether the board violated state law that requires decisions – including the hiring of a public employee – to be made publicly.

Board President Matthew Pederson said the board will clear up any confusion by holding a meeting Friday for a formal vote on Dameworth’s hiring.

Dameworth started work as the director on Tuesday.

Board members have stressed that they never took a vote on the matter. Taking a vote in private violates the state’s open meetings act.

“If they reached a consensus, they can’t argue they didn’t have a vote,” said Mindy Chambers, spokeswoman for the state Auditor’s Office, which monitors public agencies’ compliance with state laws.

“How else do you determine if you reached a consensus?”

Pederson, Airway Heights mayor, said he offered Dameworth the position after coming to the “belief that the majority of the group was in favor of this” in an executive session, which is a closed-door meeting.

“I think you’re misinterpreting what consensus is,” Pederson said. “The board at no time took a vote in executive session.”

Decisions covered by the open meetings law aren’t limited to formal votes “with yeas and nays,” said Greg Overstreet, special assistant attorney general for government accountability.

“The Open Public Meetings Act is an accountability measure so people can know the positions of appointed and elected officials,” Overstreet said.

The law allows a board to privately discuss the qualifications of a job applicant. But a decision on the hiring must be made in public, officials said.

“We as an auditor’s office would encourage them to take a public vote when they are offering someone a public position,” Chambers said.

Pederson said the hiring was legitimate because he asked Dameworth at a public meeting on Monday if he accepted the position and allowed board members to raise objections. None did.

Still, no vote on Dameworth’s hiring occurred.

County Commissioner Phil Harris, who sat on the SCAPCA board, said the agency’s attorney guided them through the process.

“The consensus was unanimous to offer him the job,” Harris said.

“That’s not a vote, but what is it?”

Dameworth’s position on global warming drew concern from board member Jeff Corkill this week after Dameworth said that he is unconvinced that pollution is a factor in global warming.

The topic did not arise in the private interviews the board held with the top three candidates, Corkill said.

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