Closed-door decision not OK

September 12, 2012 

The state’s Economic and Revenue Forecast Council messed up when they met behind closed doors recently to interview finalists for the council’s director position.

To avoid violating the state Open Public Meetings Act, the seven-member council consisting of legislators and state agency heads should have first met in public to announce they were going into executive session to discuss personnel matters.

Instead the five members present went directly into a private session and picked a new director, something they should have done in an open public meeting.

State law is clear on the fact that public bodies can’t make decisions in executive session. They can deliberate and discuss certain issues, including personnel, but any final decision must be made in a public meeting.

Apparently, two of the legislators on the council – Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, and Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina – forgot which hats they were wearing at the time.

It’s not illegal for the Legislature’s political caucuses to conduct closed-door meetings to mull political strategy and count votes on pending legislation. That’s because the state Legislature is exempt from the open meetings act. But other governmental entities, including board and commissions like the revenue council, are not specifically exempted from the law.

Adding insult to injury, Orcutt put out a press release announcing who the council intended to name to the $140,000-a-year post before the council formally voted in public on the hiring of interim director Steve Lerch.

“There is absolutely clear case law that they can’t make the final decision in executive session, and they can’t really do a straw poll to try to narrow the field in an executive session,” noted Toby Nixon, a former state lawmaker and president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. “They clearly violated the open meetings act.”

The council members are unlikely to suffer any consequences from their actions. But the next time a quorum of the council meet, they better start out in the open, and limit what they do behind closed doors to what’s allowed by law.

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