AG's office issues ruling

By Bill Marcum-Courier-Herald publisher

By now, many are aware of a difference of opinion existing between The Courier-Herald and the Enumclaw School Board.

We at the paper have challenged the way the board plans to go about selecting a new superintendent; specifically, we have felt the district is not being open enough in the process.

“Transparency” is the buzz word these days. We have maintained too much would be done behind closed doors, away from public view. And, in last week's edition, we went public with our concerns.

Our challenge landed in the lap of Greg Overstreet, special assistant attorney general for government accountability. Friday, he issued a letter offering his opinion on the matter and, Monday, he spent time on the phone with newspaper staff explaining some vague issues.

The bottom line is, Overstreet - while admitting rules are vague - has sided with the district in most instances. He's assuming the board will follow the mandates of the Open Public Meetings Act, as it relates to executive sessions.

It's important to note, we believe, that the district does not have to meet in private during the superintendent selection process. Board members have chosen to make nearly the entire process private.

Overstreet admits it might be a public relations bonanza for the district to conduct its meetings in view of the public.

Last week, we promised you, our readers, would be kept up to date. Here's how things stand.

€ We challenged the district's decision to meet behind closed doors Jan. 24 when school board members review the applications of those interested in the job and narrow the field to six or eight candidates. We wanted the entire session in public view, especially when board members take action to eliminate some and keep others on the short list. “Taking action,” in our view, is something that must occur in public.

Overstreet admits it's vague, but the board can act to narrow the field, if the action is not the result of a direct vote. In his written opinion, “Secret votes are illegal.”

€ Following the meeting of the 24th, the district has maintained it will not disclose the names of those still under consideration; we'll call them semifinalists. We wanted the public to know who was still in the running. Overstreet said the district doesn't have to release those names.

€ Board members and an advisory committee will meet in private, over the course of two days, to talk with the semifinalists. We wanted the public to have the opportunity to witness those discussions - not necessarily participate, but watch. Overstreet said the district doesn't have to allow anyone in.

€ Here's a key dividing line: Overstreet has indicated the committee can review qualifications, but when the talk turns to action - when members are actually deciding who the two or three finalists will be - that discussion has to occur in full public view.

€ When the finalists are in town, the board intends to treat each to dinner at a private residence. We challenged the legality of that move. Overstreet said it's OK, as long as no more than two board members attend each dinner. Three would constitute a quorum. And they cannot compare notes following those dinners; Overstreet said that would constitute the little-known “rolling quorum” statute and be a violation of the OPMA.

The Courier-Herald based its challenges on the belief that the public is better served when its elected officials make decisions in the light of day. While conceding the school district might be operating within the rules of the OPMA, we still have to wonder - what would be the harm in conducting the process as openly as possible?

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