December 11, 2009 in Opinion

Editorial: Park Board failed to take very simple law seriously


Let’s say you are a public official about to cast a vote on a public issue in a private setting. Do you:

A) Vote.

B) Politely note that you don’t want to break the law.

For the correct response, let’s turn to Tim Ford, the open government ombudsman for the state attorney general’s office. He says he can’t conceive of any condition under which state law allows for private votes by public officials.

This may seem elementary, but then, how to explain the actions of 11 Spokane Park Board members, who several months ago voted in executive session to continue negotiations with Mobius Spokane for a possible science museum on the north bank of Riverfront Park? Not one of them raised objections to the secret vote, according to two board members in attendance.

The vote came to light only when it was referenced during an open meeting last month. A search for the minutes documenting that vote came up empty, which raised the suspicion that it was done in private.

The rapid memory loss among board members is striking. Some say they can’t remember whether the vote was public or private. Spokane City Councilman Bob Apple, who sits on the board, can’t recall a vote at all. Park Board President Gary Lawton admits that it was a private vote.

A tape recording of this executive session could revive memories, but there isn’t one. That’s because the state Legislature has failed to adopt a simple law that mandates recordings of executive sessions. Under the proposed law, a citizen could lodge a complaint and a judge would then listen to a recording to decide whether the law had been broken. If so, the information becomes public. If not, the meeting stays under wraps.

The fiercest opponents to such a law are public officials, who have persuaded lawmakers that recordings are unnecessary and could cause more problems than they solve. In actuality, there would be few problems as long as public officials followed the law. The Park Board’s inexcusable action ably demonstrates the need for this accountability tool.

Lawton and board member Kimberly Morse told The Spokesman-Review that officials didn’t realize their actions were a violation. The absence of a recording means this claim can’t be confirmed. It is certainly hard to believe. Most of the members are veteran public officials. This wasn’t a case of navigating a gray area surrounding the exceptions to open meetings law.

You don’t vote in private. Period.

But if the board wants to claim ignorance, then how many other secret votes have taken place?

Given all of the controversies in recent years surrounding open government, it’s unfathomable that this is a training issue. But if it is, then the board has neglected that basic duty. If this isn’t the reason, then they simply thumbed their nose at the law.

This isn’t hard. The public’s business should be conducted in public. If that’s objectionable, then officials should resign and return to their private lives.

There are six comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email