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Tracking board’s actions is no walk in the park

Sun., Aug. 2, 2009

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. meetings are almost completely closed to the public. The board convenes, votes to go into executive session – 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 holds a public meeting where the public can 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 go behind closed doors for certain things. (Note: The law says “may” not “shall.” It’s optional, but rare is the attorney who 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. The board caught flak last week 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 for a couple years to make changes to a contract that’s existed for about a decade. The public and media need to keep an eye on it.

Is it necessary for the board to discuss the negotiations 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 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 before 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 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 any time or any place, if it provides adequate notice, said Tim Ford, the state attorney general’s ombudsman for open meetings. 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.”

Not all 7 a.m. meetings have been exclusively executive. In March, the board voted to ban smoking in all parks and possibly even golf courses – a fairly controversial action – 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 that ban and study it for a year or two.

At least no one on the board has argued they hold 7 a.m. meetings because they’re all “morning people” who think more clearly that time of day.

Spin Control is a weekly political column that also appears as a Web log with daily posts, videos and reader comments at blogs/spincontrol. Hottest topic last week was Tim Eyman’s endorsement of a City Council candidate.

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