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Park district votes twice to comply with open meetings law
In its last meeting, the Vashon Park District voted on a severance agreement for a former employee who had worked for the district for several years. It was the second time the commissioners voted on the agreement because they first voted in a closed executive session, which is prohibited by state law.
Park district Executive Director Elaine Ott said she requested the second vote on July 22 after she learned at a recent workshop that the previous vote, in March, should have been taken in public. Ott noted that at the time she believed the issue was supposed to be acted on privately.
“I will admit I was surprised,” she said. “I had thought that personnel and legal issues were sacrosanct.”
Nancy Krier, the assistant attorney general for open government, said that Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) allows for discussion of those and other matters in private executive sessions, but final actions, such as votes, must be taken publicly. If a board makes an error, there are specific steps it can take to remedy it, she noted.
“A board can correct a violation by doing in public what it should have done in public,” she said.
While the law allows for legal action and and imposing fines on board members, a more pressing question is if all the board members have adequate training in the act’s requirements, Krier said.
The OPMA has been in place for 40 years in Washington, but a new law, The Open Government Trainings Act, went into effect July 1, she said. This law was passed partly because several public agencies have failed to comply with the OPMA and the Public Records Act in recent years. Most violations are not malicious or intentional, government documents state, but a result of insufficient training and knowledge.
This law requires that members of the governing body of a public agency appointed or elected after July 1 take basic open government training within in 90 days of taking office and to take a refresher course every four years. For board members appointed or elected prior to that date, training is not required, but is recommended, she said. The training is free and can be done online or in a workshop setting.
The law does not spell out training requirements, but state documents indicate the training could include the purpose of the act, requirements for regular and special meetings, public notice, executive sessions and penalties. The training may also include the requirement to maintain minutes and have them open for public inspection.
Two years ago some islanders raised concerns about the district violating the OPMA when commissioners decided to seek the resignation of then executive director Jan Milligan after reaching consensus in executive session. Milligan was asked to resign, and when she did not, the board voted publicly three days later to fire her, but did not allow public comment, which is required when “curing” a violation.
President Lu-Ann Branch, who was a board member at the time and was elected president this year, could not be reached for comment about the votes this year or any training board members may have had on what are often referred to as Washington’s “sunshine laws.” However, commissioner Scott Harvey, who was elected in the fall, said he does not recall getting any training in the requirements of the act when he joined the board, but said he is open to it. Like Ott, he said he thought that personnel matters were to be dealt with in executive session. Ott, who came to the agency after working in finance for several years, noted she is continuing to engage in training pertaining to running a public agency.
“I think it is important,” she added.
Regarding the vote in question, last week commissioners voted unanimously to approve paying former maintenance employee and park caretaker Scott Provost $10,000 to cover his moving expenses, including removing his modular home from Paradise Ridge Park. From that amount, they will also subtract $450 for rent and the average monthly utility bill each month since his fall termination date, Ott said.
Both Ott and Provost said a legal agreement prohibits them from publicly discussing the details of his termination.
Currently, Ott said, Provost is set to receive about $6,200 from the district, though that amount will continue to decrease until his home has been moved out of the park and the land cleared to the park district’s satisfaction. Provost said he expects both matters will be taken care of in the coming weeks, noting that he sold his house last month.
Ott said she and Provost communicate regularly about his progress.
“I would like this to work out well for both parties,” she added.