Port commission violated OPMA, employees say

Employees for the Port of Coupeville say board commissioners met outside of a public meeting for nearly two hours last week.

The action, they say, violates the Open Public Meetings Act.

Port administrative assistant Orion Gudgell said commissioners John Mishasek and William Bell met at the port office on Monday, Oct. 10. They could be seen sat at the same table working on port business together.

Damon Stadler, facilities maintenance manager, said he too witnessed the meeting and even addressed the perceived issue with the commissioners, but they ignored him.

Gudgell said he did not say anything to the commissioners, but he said he didn’t feel he should have to.

“That should be well known to them for all the rules they bring up at meetings,” he said. “They should know that one.”

Under the Open Public Meetings Act, elected officials cannot discuss business outside of public meetings if there is a quorum. Currently, Mishasek and Bell make up the entire port board.

Mishasek confirmed this week that he and Bell were at the office, but he said they were working on separate business and not together.

“We actually didn’t talk together,” Mishasek said. “We talked to the employees.”

Gudgell said he witnessed them conversing.

“They were both at the same table working together,” he said. “You can’t hide that.”

Mishasek maintains he was not meeting about port business outside an open public meeting and any question otherwise is just the employees’ perception.

“I think we tried to separate when it was port discussion,” he said.

Bell did not return requests for comment.

Elected officials can be around each other outside of public meetings as long as they aren’t discussing business, said Nancy Krier, assistant attorney general for open government. It is also OK for officials to be working in the same office.

In an instance where witnesses claim discussion between officials occurred but officials deny it, that would be up to a judge to decide wrongdoing, she said.

Government transparency has been at the forefront of concern in recent weeks with the community and the port.

Tenants questioned commissioner actions following a Sept. 29 meeting where Mishasek and Bell made a surprise vote to terminate Executive Director Forrest Rambo.

A tenant told the Examiner that Mishasek told him a week prior to the vote that he and Bell were working on taking control of the port. The statement prompted questions about outside meetings or discussions between the commissioners.

Mishasek denies telling a tenant that.

Records requests show that the commissioners frequently send each other informational emails labeling them as an “FYI” and sometimes specify “do not reply to this.”

Recent emails show correspondence from Mishasek to Bell about the candidates he was considering for the interim director position, sharing information about budget deadlines and other port business.

An Oct. 12 email from interim director candidate Jan-Marc Jouas, addressed to both Mishasek and Bell, highlights discussion and negotiations between the three.

“Dear John and William, In reference to your question yesterday, I’ve attached ….,” the email started.

Mishasek said he met with Jouas separately and encouraged him to contact Bell separately. While the wording of the email may imply the three met collectively, he said that is not the case.

Krier said that officials can send each other emails for informational purposes that can be described as “passive receipt,” in that the recipient doesn’t reply and a conversation isn’t engaged.

“It’s particularly challenging for small bodies,” Krier said. “If they’re relying on themselves to create a meeting agenda or don’t have an administrative person to filter information to, they need to be careful there’s not an active exchange.”