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Lessons in open public meetings | In Our Opinion
The North Kitsap School Board’s announcements of its upcoming meetings customarily state, “The North Kitsap School District Board of Directors will hold its Regular Meeting at 6 p.m. in the Board Room of the Student Support Center (District Office), 18360 Caldart Ave. NE, Poulsbo. The Board will hold an Executive Session at 5 p.m. for approximately one hour, during which no action will be taken.”
Every announcement of upcoming meetings through Dec. 6 makes that statement.
The presumption that there will be an executive session concerns us for a couple of reasons. One, state law is clear on how and why a closed meeting may be held. Reasons include discussion of contract negotiations, personnel matters and real estate transactions. Two, the purpose of the closed meeting and the time it will end is to be announced in the meeting room, to those in attendance. But the meeting room is usually empty because residents customarily show up at 6, the posted time of the regular meeting.
We talked to School Board President Dan Weedin about it. “Turns out, there are normally issues that we have to discuss [in executive session],” he said. If there was no reason for an executive session, then that announcement is made at 6 p.m., at the beginning of the regular meeting when the public is there.
So, the period of 5-6 p.m. in the school board meeting is a question mark. The public is usually not there and the school board meets or doesn’t meet in executive session. You’ll find out at 6. The school board may not be doing anything wrong, but the board will have to be careful to ensure it stays that way.
The alternative is not clear. Residents could show up at 5, witness the announcement of the closed session, then leave and return at 6. Or they can show up at 6 and learn if there was a closed session and what was discussed. Or the school board could just start its regular meetings at 5, adjourn into executive session if necessary and, if not, immediately move onto regular agenda items instead of waiting until 6.
The state’s Open Public Meetings Act extends to emails too. On Aug. 10 and 13, Mayor Becky Erickson and Councilwoman Linda Berry-Maraist engaged in an email discussion with each other and with downtown business people regarding a parking plan the council had discussed earlier in public. Other members of the City Council did not participate in the discussion but were sent copies of the email discussion — information that could influence. All of this constituted a serial meeting and was not legal because it was a discussion that the public did not have access to.
Notified by the Herald that the email discussion constituted a serial meeting, the mayor wrote, “Thank you for the reminder. Sometimes conversations get out of control as passions rise. This email trail should be a public conversation.”
Public officials must be diligent about ensuring the public’s business is conducted in public. And residents must participate so they can safeguard their right to know.
(Editor's note: The version of this editorial in the Sept. 7 Herald should have said that Mayor Erickson sent emails to all members of the City Council. Berry-Maraist included the mayor and two council members in the email conversation).