If public officials could be counted on to do their work in plain sight, it wouldn’t have taken a citizen-written initiative to pry open the doors and shutters of government in Washington state more than 30 years ago.
Initiative 276 put us on the way to open meetings, open records and campaign-finance disclosure, all for one reason: Too many people in government were keeping too many secrets.
Laws have changed since the 1970s, but some attitudes haven’t. Last week the Spokane Park Board held a closed-door session, in part to discuss how it would come up with $4.3 million it still owes to buy the downtown YMCA building. Assistant City Attorney Pat Dalton had told board members that the law permits discussion of real estate deals in closed sessions.
The people who wrote I-276 three decades ago weren’t dopes. They understood that if a city council wants to buy a piece of property, talking publicly about how much it’s willing to pay could weaken its bargaining strategy. Hence, the real estate exemption cited by Dalton. In fact, part of last week’s agenda dealt with a pending lease transaction and fell legitimately under that exemption. But the price for the YMCA had already been settled. That agenda item was about how to come up with the rest of the money.
An assistant state attorney general who specializes in open-government matters said last week’s meeting should have been in open session. Dalton agrees, but he wasn’t at the meeting, so no one asked him about withdrawing behind closed doors under those circumstances.
In the absence of legal clarification, the Park Board did what many government entities do: They opted for secrecy. Rather than acting in the open unless the law requires closure, they relied on past advice they thought gave them permission to shut the public out because there seemed to be no requirement to let them in.
What did the board members expect to say or do that needed to be said or done in secret? From the citizens’ point of view, the conversation that took place in executive session was of vital public interest.
The public had every right to know what funding options the board was considering, to see the process and to hear the members explain their decision-making.
Spokane Park Director Barry Russell says this board is more committed to openness than those he has worked with elsewhere. But he speculated that its members had numerous funding alternatives to consider, they were confused and they didn’t want to sort it out in an open session. Board member Steve McNutt said they had conducted a series of executive sessions when they were still negotiating price, and “we just went on autopilot.”
Saving face is not grounds for closing a public meeting. Nor is habitual secrecy. Until public entities start setting their autopilots on “open,” citizens will have to keep driving wedges behind those doors and shutters.