It shouldn’t have taken three years to bring the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency’s open-meetings case to a close. But it did.
Not only that, it cost taxpayers $25,000, the amount the agency paid for failing to follow a state law that’s been on the books more than three decades.
In June 2006, what was known then as the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority went into a closed-door meeting. When the members emerged they announced that Bill Dameworthy, a former timber company official, had been chosen to fill a months-long vacancy as director of the agency. They took no vote, they just asked Dameworthy if he wanted the job.
Once it was pointed out that such decisions have to be made in public, SCAPCA members danced a semantic minuet around the issue, insisting they’d somehow reached a “consensus” about the selection during their closed executive session but actually made the choice only after returning to public view.
News accounts immediately focused attention on the dubiousness of such an explanation, but who – other than the SCAPCA members present in the room – could confirm or refute their explanation?
If audio recordings were made of executive sessions, it would have been possible for a judge to listen to the actual proceedings and rule promptly on whether anyone broke the law. Such recordings are not made, however.
The Legislature has considered a law to require them, but local government lobbyists have blocked it.
The proposal has been that executive sessions – which the law permits only for certain purposes and under explicit circumstances – would have to be recorded. If a plausible question were raised about abuse of the law, a judge could listen alone in chambers to the recording and decide. If everything was aboveboard, the recording would remain secret.
Without that reasonable recourse, however, the SCAPCA case was finally resolved only after a lawsuit, a prolonged delay and the waste of $25,000 that should have been used on behalf of clean air.
The Legislature owes this idea another look – and a favorable consensus.