Port of Coupeville commissioners violated the Open Public Meetings Act by meeting outside of public view for nearly two hours, say employees.
Port Administrative Assistant Orion Gudgell said commissioners John Mishasek and William Bell met at the port office Monday, Oct. 10 and sat at the same table working on port business.
Facilities maintenance manager Damon Stadler said he also witnessed an illegal meeting and even addressed the matter with the commissioners, but was ignored.
Gudgell said he did not say anything to the commissioners about the meeting, but he didn’t think he should have had to say anything about the open meetings law.
“They should know that one,” Gudgell said.
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. A third position remains unfilled.
Mishasek confirmed that he and Bell were at the port office. He said he and Bell worked on separate business, but not together.
Any suggestions otherwise are just the employees’ perception, he said. “I think we tried to separate when it was port discussion.”
“We actually didn’t talk together,” Mishasek said. “We talked to the employees.”
Gudgell said he witnessed Mishasek and Bell conversing.
“They were both at the same table working together,” he said. “You can’t hide that.”
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 public officials to be working in the same office.
In an instance in which witnesses claim discussions between officials occurred, but officials deny it, it would be up to a judge to decide whether there was wrongdoing, she said.
Transparency has been an issue of concern in recent weeks for community members watching recent activites at the port.
Port tenants questioned the commissioners’ actions following a Sept. 29 meeting in which Mishasek and Bell cast a surprise vote to terminate Executive Director Forrest Rambo, one that the third commissioner was unaware was coming.
Port tenant Windwalker Taibi, owner of Ravenrocks Gallery, said that Mishasek told him a week prior to Rambo’s ouster that he and Bell were working on taking control of the public port.
Mishasek denies saying that to Taibi.
Records requests show that Bell and Mishasek frequently exchange informational emails labeled “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 selectee Jan-Marc Jouas to Mishasek and Bell included details about discussions and negotiations between the three.
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, Mishasek said that is not the case.
Krier said that public officials may send each other emails for informational purposes, and that can be described as “passive receipt,” in that the recipient doesn’t reply and there is no back-and-forth conversation.
“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.”