One North Whidbey Park and Recreation District board member’s behind-closed-door attempt to take another commissioner “to task” may have been illegal.
Commissioner Shane Hoffmire alleges a closed-door meeting called Sept. 28 by Chairwoman Donna Sue Holly was solely to reprimand him and threaten to kick him off the board.
Hoffmire says he believes the closed meeting was illegal, and one expert on open meetings laws agrees.
“There are a number of ways an elected official can be removed from office, such as if they fail to attend meetings, lose voter registration, fail to live within the elected district or become a convicted felon,” said Toby Nixon, president for the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
“There are ways to remove them,” he said. “But voting them off the island isn’t one of them.”
After calling the board into executive session, Holly “immediately started reading off a two- to three-page diatribe,” Hoffmire said. “She basically said, if I didn’t start doing what the board wanted, she was going to remove me.”
When calling the closed meeting, Holly cited RCW 42.30.110 paragraph 1f, stating an executive session can be called to “receive and evaluate complaints or charges brought against a public officer or employee.”
“However,” the law says, “upon the request of such officer or employee, a public hearing or a meeting open to the public shall be conducted upon such complaint or charge.”
Hoffmire said Holly told him it was her job, as the board chairwoman, to maintain order at meetings, and that, if he didn’t shape up, she was going to “personally, permanently” remove him from the board.
“I let her say her peace, and then let her know that’s not how it works,” Hoffmire said. “She argued she had the authority.
“I really felt like she thought she was the captain of this whole thing. My job is to represent the public, and I felt like I’ve done that. I don’t work for her.”
When asked to comment on the closed-door session, Holly expressed unhappiness that Hoffmire was discussing it publicly.
“We’re not supposed to talk about what happens in executive sessions,” she said. “I think it’s inappropriate he’s discussing this.”
Holly said she believes that state law allowed her to call that executive session.
“If you’re going to take someone to task, that’s where you do it,” she said. “In executive session, not out in public.”
“This to me sounds like the purpose of the meeting was to give an ultimatum, not to receive and evaluate the complaint,” he said. “It also sounds like the person facing the complaint wasn’t aware there were complaints lodged against him and therefore wasn’t given the opportunity to request the meeting be held publicly, per the RCW.”
Holly said she doesn’t think she solely has the authority to remove a member of the board but a majority of the board can.
“You can’t have a member who goes against the rules,” Holly said. “In our bylaws, it says we’re governed by Roberts Rules of Order, and there it says you can eject someone.”
While they’d still technically be an elected official, the board can prevent them from taking a seat, Holly said.
“That’s nonsense,” said Nixon. “State law overrides Robert’s Rule of Order.”
Nixon said he questions the validity of Holly’s reasoning for holding the secret meeting.
“Does berating the person fall under that condition?” he questioned. “Taking to task doesn’t fall under ‘receiving and evaluating’ a complaint. I agree, it sounds like this was an illegal executive session.”
The closed-door scolding session was just a recent example of poor treatment by other board members Hoffmire said he’s endured for the past two years, adding he considered not running again because of the behavior.
Hoffmire said he wonders if the meeting was planned beforehand.
“None of the other board members looked surprised,” Hoffmire said. “I hate to assume, but it sure makes you wonder.”
Holly said the reason she threatened Hoffmire was because she believes he disrupted meetings by standing and screaming. While Holly admits past meetings have gotten heated, and that other board members also raise their voices, she said only Hoffmire prevented a meeting from continuing.
“I did talk to Commis-sioner (Wendy) Shingleton separately to make sure I wasn’t overstepping,” Holly said. “We are very, very careful to not make decisions in the smokey back room.”
Having a conversation with one board member is fine, Nixon said, even two members separately about the same topic is fine as long as information about what other members say isn’t passed along.
If you start having a serial meeting, that is illegal, he said.
Holly maintains she was within her rights to hold the executive session, though she said she meant to verify it with the county auditor, but hasn’t.
Hoffmire said he checked with the Island County Elections Office, Secretary of State’s office and the park district’s insurance provider.