March 27, 2010 in City

Commissioners’ tempers boil over

Open meetings law, scheduling flaws stir flap
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Spokane County employees scurried out of the room this week when county commissioners began tossing verbal bricks at each other in a public meeting.

One staff member deftly closed the door between commissioners and a couple of television crews that were in the hallway, preoccupied with another story.

Commission Chairman Mark Richard apologized for arguing in front of staff members.

Then he joined the firefight between commissioners Todd Mielke and Bonnie Mager over adherence to the state Open Public Meetings Act and bungled efforts to schedule meetings.

Mielke started the brouhaha with complaints that Mager “jeopardized” the county by violating the open meetings law. Mager, who is up for re-election this year and is the only Democrat on the board, responded that Mielke’s comments were “politically motivated.”

Mielke supports two of the three Republicans who want her job, businessman Steve Salvatori and Spokane City Councilman Al French. The other Republican in the race is attorney Jeff Holy.

Mielke’s complaints began with a March 3 meeting with Spokane and Airway Heights representatives to discuss the county’s Geiger Spur railroad project. The meeting was advertised as public, but Mielke said he was told shortly before the meeting that he would no longer be welcome. Richard said he was “aghast” when he also was told to stay away.

A cancellation notice was e-mailed to The Spokesman-Review less than two hours before the meeting, and Mager conducted the meeting privately. She asked a reporter who hadn’t seen the cancellation notice to leave on grounds that the session was never intended to be public.

Mager’s staff assistant, Brooke Plastino, said that the faulty notice occurred when he confused the Geiger Spur meeting with one that was supposed to be public.

Mielke blamed Mager for other scheduling confusion, in which heroic efforts to allow her to attend a couple of meetings Monday were wasted when she didn’t show up for either one.

Mager apologized for the confusion but rejected Mielke’s assertion that she violated the open-meetings law.

Mielke said closing the Geiger Spur meeting after it was advertised as public was “inappropriate.” But, he said, Mager clearly violated the open-meetings law March 16 when she spoke at a West Central Neighborhood meeting at which Richard was a panelist.

Mager said she sat quietly through most of the meeting and finally made a comment that “affirmed” what Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and a resident said about the need for programs to reduce the need for jail cells.

“It was clearly an open meeting,” Mager said, noting reporters were present and the public was invited. “It just happened to end up having two or more commissioners there.”

Mielke said Mager was missing the point: The session wasn’t advertised as a meeting of county commissioners. People weren’t alerted that two commissioners might discuss county business.

“I think this is politically motivated,” Mager said.

Richard asked whether the commissioners’ attorney, Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Jim Emacio, wanted to weigh in as Mager had requested.

“Probably not,” Emacio said.

Emacio said some court decisions suggest it is permissible for the majority of a public board to be at a private meeting if “they’re not going to say one word.” But even that would be “taking a risk,” he said.

Richard noted Mager criticized him and Mielke for attending a private meeting at Spokane County Raceway Park in May 2008.

Mielke accused Mager of campaigning on “openness and transparency” while engaging in an opposite “pattern of behavior.”

He cited a May 2007 exchange of home-address e-mails between Mager and a county planner who gave Mager advice on how to stop a controversial subdivision.

Mager suggested that Tuesday’s spectacle could have been avoided if Mielke had asked her privately about the meeting schedule confusion.

Mielke said that would have been an illegal meeting.


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