Social gathering falls in gray area

POULSBO — A round of drinks were on the table at a local pub.

Those sipping the beverages were four elected officials: North Kitsap School District Board President Melanie Mohler, directors Val Torrens, Ed Strickland and Tom Anderson, casually gathering after a school board meeting Tuesday evening. The four were joined by newly hired Superintendent Rick Jones.

It was a social gathering that brought Washington state's Open Public Meeting law into play.

The law states: "A meeting takes place whenever a majority of a governing body's members congregate to deal in any way with their official business. This includes simply discussing some matter having to do with official business, taking public testimony, engaging in deliberations, reviews, or evaluations, and taking collective action on a motion, proposal, resolution, order, or ordinance. A meeting would not include purely social and ceremonial gatherings, nor would it likely apply to an academic conference or similar event that a majority of members happened to attend."

While it's a gray area of the law, for a quorum of any voting body to meet without prior notice to the public, it does give the appearance of impropriety, said Bill Will, general manager of the Washington Newspaper Press Association.

"If it's a quorum of any voting body, they have to be really careful not to talk about school board business. Even though it's a social gathering, it can be interpreted as illegal," he said.

While all in attendance were adamant it was a purely social gathering — topics on the informal agenda included sports and Tuesday night's presidential debates — shortly after being asked by the Herald what they were doing and talking about and raising the question of open public meetings, Jones and Mohler left.

Whether or not school business was discussed, when asked if it was wise and transparent to meet for drinks at a local bar after a school board meeting, Jones agreed, but only if the social gatherings happened regularly.

"The important thing from my perspective is I'm trying to build relationships with the board and for them to be comfortable with me. So social opportunities are a good thing," Jones said.

He was, however, not able to provide a guarantee that school district business was not discussed.

"There's absolutely no guarantee. People will think what they want, that's just part of being in the public eye," Jones said. "If it happened all the time that would not be wise."

Pub servers did affirm school board members had been in the pub before.

Jones said he would be definitely be discussing the board's behavior with them as well as reviewing the law.

Director Dan Delaney was not present and when asked why, Strickland said "He doesn't like to socialize."

More in-depth coverage of the board's social pub gathering will be in Saturday's edition.

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