Elected officials should try their best not to break the law.
That may sound obvious or even silly, but there frequently seems to be a lack of awareness when it comes to the Open Public Meetings Act, as recent events on Whidbey Island have shown.
It is a duty of elected officials to understand, and abide by, Washington state’s Sunshine Laws, approved by voters.
“The Washington Public Records Act is one of the strongest open government laws in the nation and reflects the desire of Washington citizens to know what their government is doing,” according to the Washington State Attorney General’s website. “A transparent and accessible government is essential to a successful free society, and fosters trust and confidence in government.”
“Strong ‘sunshine laws’ are crucial to assuring government accountability and transparency.
In Washington State, those laws provide for open public records and open public meetings,” says the AG’s office.
While some elected officials are openly annoyed, even scornful, of the open meetings laws, they are nonetheless crucial to a functioning democracy. The public needs to know and understand what decisions are being made.
North Whidbey Park and Recreation District Commissioner Shane Hoffmire recently told the Whidbey News-Times about a closed-door session that clearly violated the state’s open meetings law. Chairwoman Donna Sue Holly called the closed-door session to berate Hoffmire for what she describes as disruptive behavior.
Holly also reportedly threatened to kick Hoffmire off the board if he doesn’t toe the line.
To attempt to muzzle, direct or threaten an elected official in order to bring them in line with the wishes of the rest of the board is contrary to the will of the voters. Whether the other commissioners like what Hoffmire has to say, he was the chosen voice of voters.
Could you imagine if two of the Island County commissioners decided to threaten to kick off the third member because they didn’t like his, or her, behavior? It could conceivably be a revolving door.
In defending her actions, Holly cited an exemption allowing a board to hold an executive session to “receive and evaluate complaints” about a public official.
Scolding Hoffmire about his behavior doesn’t fall under this exemption.
Also, the law states that Hoffmire had the right to have the discussion in public, if he wanted. He said he didn’t know what the meeting was for. Therefore he wasn’t given that choice.
Moreover, Holly made the ridiculous claim that the other board members could join her in voting to kick Hoffmire off the board under Robert’s Rules of Order.
Wrong. Parliamentary procedure doesn’t trump state law, or the will of the people.
The park and rec board isn’t the only group of elected officials that occasionally runs afoul of the law. It’s especially difficult for boards of smaller taxing districts to understand the law since they don’t have a staff attorney.
There are plenty of ways for elected officials to learn the law, however. The state Attorney General’s open government ombudsman, for example, assists agencies and citizens with questions, but also holds in-person training assistance.
Ignorance of the open meetings law, though, is no excuse for violating them.