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Opinion | One-on-one talks are minefield for elected officials
Snoqualmie’s seven council members can’t carbon-copy each other on e-mails anymore, thanks to Jodi Warren.
The Snoqualmie City Clerk takes the spirit of transparency rules very seriously, so around the time she started at City Hall, she banned the practice of multiple c.c.s. She did it because such e-mails between elected officials who vote on public matters are a form of discussion. That discussion is supposed to take place in chambers, not on computer keyboards.
Warren’s ban is worth considering in light of some recent discussion over ways that elected school officials are staying in touch.
Last week, school board member Craig Husa got called on the carpet by letter writer Michelle Kaufmann after he remarked about one-on-one communication between board members and administration at the recent Snoqualmie Valley Rotary Club candidates forum.
At issue was whether Husa and his fellow board members are skirting the state’s open public meeting laws by talking in private. Asked to clarify his remarks, Husa told me that board members do occasionally talk outside of chambers, either in person or on the phone.
Husa figures he does 90 percent of his business as a school board member in the meeting room—business that can also include discussions with staff and administrators and visits to schools. All board decisions are made in public. Board members receive open-meetings training and are careful never to discuss business when there are enough of them together to form a quorum.
“It’s proper due diligence to come to the meeting with as much of the information understood individually,” says Husa, who describes the substance of the one-on-one discussions as mainly informational.
School board president Dan Popp told me that board members do phone each other, averaging once every other month. Calls are generally informational or logistical, such as start times or availability.
According to the Washington State School Director’s Association’s own Open Public Meetings guide, school board members may gather as long as no action—broadly defined as deliberation, discussion, consideration, review or evaluation—takes place.
Informational discussions outside of board or council chambers are all well and good. But officials need to be careful is that their talks do not venture into dangerous territory.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, told me that while there is nothing technically wrong with one-on-one conversations, elected officials can run into problems if information is conveyed from one meeting to another. Such conversations, Nixon says, constitute a “serial meeting,” which courts have determined as a possible violation of the Open Public Meetings Act. Parties to a serial meeting don’t have to be members of the board. If a superintendent meets with board members individually, but in doing so conveys information from one to another, that can also be a serial meeting.
According to Bill Will, executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publisher’s Association, one-on-one meetings between public officials are not illegal, but that doesn’t mean they are appropriate. A passive passing-on of information is fine, but if the conversation becomes a discussion of government business, it’s improper, Will says. The right place for those kinds of discussions is always at an open public forum.
It is fine for boards and councils to use things like e-mail or phone calls to stay informed. But they need to be vigilant that those communications don’t venture into discussions that rightfully belong at the meeting table. Their employers, the public, have a right to see that deliberation done in the open.