March 14, 2009 in City

Park Board meets behind closed doors

Any open-government violation was accidental, member McNutt says
By The Spokesman-Review
 

The Spokane Park Board may have violated a public accountability law this week when it met behind closed doors to discuss how it will pay for the downtown YMCA.

At Thursday’s parks meeting, the board adjourned to meet in private, in part to consider how it will come up with the $4.3 million that’s left of the $5.3 million it agreed to pay for the Y in 2006. The park board put $1 million down on the property soon after the deal was crafted. The rest is due April 28.

Asked just before the private session why the park board was meeting in an “executive session,” Park Director Barry Russell cited the real estate exemption to the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

“We might have a price, but we don’t know how we’re paying for it,” Russell said when asked after the meeting about the closed discussion.

Tim Ford, open government ombudsman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said governments can only consider real estate issues in private “when those discussions would likely cause an increase or a decrease in the price of that real estate.”

“If an agency has already signed a contract and the price is fixed on that contract, there wouldn’t be any likelihood of an increase or a decrease,” Ford said. “So, that discussion should be in the public.”

Park Board member Steve McNutt said that given Ford’s interpretation, the Park Board “may have ventured out of bounds.” He said if there was a violation, it was unintentional.

“We were just acting under the general guidance and understandings from (Assistant City Attorney Pat Dalton) that the terms of real estate transactions could be discussed” in a closed meeting.

Dalton, the attorney assigned to the Park Board, said he agrees with Ford’s interpretation. He added that he’s given advice to the board about holding private discussions involving real estate, but not specifically for Thursday’s meeting. He added that he usually tries to attend meetings with closed portions but that he didn’t realize the board would meet privately this week.

“What sticks in their minds is that real estate equals executive session,” Dalton said. “It’s a confusing subject. That’s why it’s always good to have an attorney there.”

The board bought the Y in 2006 to prevent construction of a condo tower on the site, which is adjacent to Spokane Falls, and to incorporate the land into Riverfront Park.

Spokane park leaders last year asked Spokane County to buy the land for its Conservation Futures program, which collects a property tax aimed at preserving land for nature. The county park board endorsed the concept, but the County Commission has yet to vote on the idea.

If Conservation Futures money is used, the Park Board has agreed to tear down the building within five years and return the property to a more native state.

Russell said the board was discussing how to pay for the land if Conservation Futures money isn’t available by the purchase deadline.

McNutt said if the county declines the Park Board’s request, one possibility is obtaining a bank loan. If the commissioners indicate they might consider Conservation Futures at a later date, the loan could be configured so that only interest would have to be paid in the short term.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.

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