Two county commissioners privately toured Spokane Raceway Park with a National Hot Rod Association official Wednesday – a gathering that may have violated government accountability laws.
Commissioner Todd Mielke, himself a longtime racing enthusiast, and Commissioner Mark Richard spent about an hour with NHRA Northwest Division Director Jonathan Adams, discussing the future of the track the county purchased last month for $4.3 million.
Richard’s re-election campaign manager, Martin Burnette, said he helped organize the meeting at the 200-acre site that includes a drag strip, oval track and road racing course. The meeting was neither publicized to give taxpayers an opportunity to attend, nor mentioned to the Spokane County Commission’s chairwoman.
Burnette called The Spokesman-Review after a reporter attempted to reach longtime racing enthusiast Don Wilbur, who attended the meeting and is a business partner of Orville Moe, the controversial former operator of the raceway.
“It wasn’t a public meeting,” Burnette said. “It was a private meeting of private individuals with a private corporation.”
But Tim Ford, open government ombudsman for the state attorney general’s office, said a meeting with a majority of commissioners relating to county business constitutes a session that should be open to public attendance.
“Obviously there’s official business relating to the track,” Ford said, “and I’m sure they weren’t going out there to talk about how well the Mariners are doing.”
The state’s Open Public Meetings Act requires public notification when a quorum of elected officials gather to take action. The law says actions that require meetings to be open include deliberations, discussions, considerations, reviews and evaluations.
The county did not issue a public notice that commissioners would be at the raceway. The third commissioner, Chairwoman Bonnie Mager, was not informed of the meeting – though she said she was tipped off Wednesday morning that it was happening.
Mielke and Richard confirmed Wednesday that the meeting occurred. But they said they don’t believe they violated government accountability laws because they were at the track simply to gather information about NHRA, not to make decisions or discuss plans with each other. Mielke added that he was unaware that Richard would be in attendance.
County attorney Jim Emacio said he advises commissioners that a second commissioner can attend a meeting as long as he or she doesn’t participate in conversation or ask questions.
“If you start participating in the meeting, then I believe it’s problematic,” Emacio said. “I would probably take the position that (the raceway meeting) was not a violation of the Open Meetings Act for those reasons.”
“The definition of action is sufficiently broad that it includes more than active participation,” Ford said. “It also includes mere consideration, whether your mouth is open or not.”
Mielke said NHRA examined the site to help determine what changes are needed to earn the group’s sanction for drag-racing events. He said NHRA’s visit is “hugely significant” and equated the group to the NASCAR of drag racing.
“That’s the barnstormer here,” Mielke said. “You now have NHRA in town, not just locals talking about it.”
To attend the raceway gathering, Mielke and Richard skipped another commission meeting that was advertised to the public. That was a session about “strategic planning” with a representative of the county’s boundary review board and a Seattle consultant. Mager said she found out last week that Richard couldn’t attend and on Tuesday that Mielke wouldn’t be there. Mager said she decided not to cancel the meeting, in part, because the consultant from across the state was scheduled to attend.
Richard said he asked Mager to cancel the meeting, which Mager denies.
There is no dispute, however, that Mager was not invited to the raceway.
She said if she had been informed about it in a timely manner, she likely would have canceled the strategic planning session and gone to the raceway.
Richard said he had no intention of inviting Mager, who has been a vocal opponent of the county’s participation in the auction to acquire the land. He said Mager has used the issue to hurt his and Mielke’s bids for re-election.
“My interests are to make sure (the raceway) is a success,” Richard said. “Hers is to do anything she can to make sure I’m not in office anymore.”
Mager said her intent is to keep the public’s business in the open. “I can’t help that he keeps making bad decisions and expects other people to keep quiet about it,” she said.
Mielke said Mager should have been invited. “It would have been in everybody’s best interest for Bonnie to be there,” Mielke said. “I hope it was an oversight.”
Mielke said that Wilbur set up Wednesday’s meeting and that Wilbur is part of a group that has expressed interest in operating the track, perhaps through a contract with the county. Mielke said he does not believe Moe is in involved in the group.
Wilbur said Wednesday afternoon that he attended the gathering only as a racing enthusiast, not as someone who is interested in operating the track.
Wilbur attended the April 10 court-ordered auction that sold off the almost one square mile of land owned by Washington Motorsports Ltd.
But it’s not known if Wilbur was among the 19 registered bidders at the auction because the court-appointed receiver has refused to publicly divulge that list after telling the court the sale would be an open, transparent process.
Wilbur and Moe jointly promote the Auto-Boat Speed Show, which is held at the county fairgrounds.
Wilbur said he isn’t interested in being part of any venture that would consider leasing the Airway Heights racing complex, if its sale in 13 individual parcels is approved by Superior Court Judge Robert Austin.
He added that he’s unsure if Moe is interested in participating in a new business venture that might attempt to lease the racing facility from the county.