Spokane Park Board President Gary Lawton acknowledged Wednesday that the decision to continue negotiations with backers of a proposed science center was made in private several months ago, a move that could have violated government accountability laws.
It is illegal under Washington law for governments to conduct votes in private “executive sessions.” Board members are allowed to discuss certain topics behind closed doors but must make any decisions in public.
The secret vote came to light in an open session of a Park Board subcommittee last month when members referred to a close vote made by the full board at an earlier meeting.
Interim Park Director Leroy Eadie, who was not in charge of the department when the vote occurred, said last week and again on Wednesday that he was unable to find a record of the vote in Park Board minutes. Minutes are not taken during executive sessions.
The 6-to-5 vote was in favor of continuing negotiations with Mobius Spokane to build a science center on parkland purchased as a result of a property tax approved by voters in 1999.
“From that session, it was decided that we were going to continue negotiating,” said Kimberly Morse, a Park Board member who has raised concerns about the financial sustainability of a science center.
Lawton and Morse said none of the Park Board members at the meeting understood that the action could constitute a violation of the Open Meetings Act and no one in the room raised concerns.
Tim Ford, open government ombudsman for the state attorney general’s office, said he knows of no condition in which votes are allowed to be taken in executive sessions.
The 6-5 vote followed a 4-6 vote against moving forward, but in a second tally, one vote changed, Lawton said, resulting in a 5-5 vote. The Park Board president breaks ties, and Lawton said he cast the deciding vote in favor of continuing negotiations.
The decision led to continued negotiations with Mobius Spokane to rewrite a deal that allowed Mobius to use park land to build a science center. That effort resulted in the Park Board voting in August in favor of a new contract. A request to modify the August agreement, however, has caused further division about the issue on the Park Board.
Some Park Board members gave varying accounts of the meeting. For instance, City Councilman Bob Apple, who also serves on the Park Board, said he remembers no votes ever taken in private. Other members said given that the vote was months ago, they couldn’t confirm if a tally was conducted in public or private.
The board is expected to discuss the Mobius contract at a meeting today.
Lawton said he was uncertain exactly when the vote occurred, but he said it was after Mobius missed a May 2008 fundraising deadline.
Mobius had agreed to raise $14 million by the 2008 deadline. Instead, the group had raised less than $11 million.