Social gathering falls into gray area of the law

Four school board members meet socially after Tuesday board meeting.

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 and Collette Wilson, chair of the Capital Facilities Advisory Committee.

Because the NKSD school board is a governing body of five voters, any time three or more gather together, there is a quorum. Because four were in attendance, it was a social gathering that brought Washington state’s Open Public Meeting law into play.

State law defines a meeting as when “a majority of a governing body’s members congregate to deal in any way with their official business. ... 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 is a gray area of the law, for a quorum of any voting body to meet without prior notice to the public 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 (official) business. Even though it’s a social gathering, it can be interpreted as illegal,” he said.

All in attendance were adamant it was a purely social gathering — topics on the informal agenda included sports and Tuesday night’s presidential debates.

Jones said the informal gathering wasn’t wise or transparent, but was only a problem if the social gatherings happened regularly.

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

“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. The law is very clear and they are within their rights.”

While the board didn’t technically break the law, it’s the law’s social exemption clause that causes the situation to get hazy.

By implication the board members can hang out in a bar if they’re not discussing official business, said Washington’s Office of Attorney General Open Government Ombudsman Tim Ford.

Proving whether or not official business was discussed is near impossible. “You can’t,” Ford said. “It’s like trying to prove a negative.”

And Ford raised the concern of ethics, as for him perception trumps technicalities.

“As a policy matter, no it’s not wise. It undermines the public’s confidence. Prudence would dictate they should not gather together as a majority at a bar or any other place except where they have regular scheduled meetings,” he said. Ford added occasionally the question of open public meetings “pops” up, but said local governments are getting used to the fact perception is more important that technical compliance. “We may be within the law but ‘Gosh what about the perception.’”

Another twist on perception is it’s common for a quorum of the board to be together at social events.

“We’ve been to parties and celebrations where we’re all there socializing so this is nothing different in my view,” said director Dan Delaney, who was not present Tuesday, as he needed to go home for personal matters. But said he would’ve been there. “Otherwise I would have been happy to join them. Commonly a couple of people go down there and there just happened to be a few more. There’s nothing controversial going on with the school board.”

Delaney added it’s wise to gather in the sense it “helps build team and allows members to get to know each other in an out of business setting.”

Former school board president Catherine Ahl agreed this is a hard area of the law. When she was on the board Ahl said they didn’t meet socially after meetings and tried to avoid giving that appearance. She couldn’t recall why the board elected not to gather socially, but did say she believed they were advised against that.

“There’s an awareness of maybe this shouldn’t be done,” Ahl said. “That’s something for the board to decide if it’s wise or not.”

The board does receive training on the ins and outs of Open Public Meeting law. And Ford said he’d be happy to provide a little extra.

“If they want to invite me I’ll be glad to come out and do some training,” he said.

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

The next school board meeting is Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. in the board room of the Student Support Center, 18360 Caldart Ave.

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