Battle Ground school board members violated the state's Open Public Meetings Act when they voted behind closed doors in executive session to spend $400,000 to buy out the contract of the district superintendent, said one of the state's top advocates for open government.
Open Public Meetings Act RCW 42.30.060
Ordinances, rules, resolutions, regulations, etc., adopted at public meetings — Notice — Secret voting prohibited.
(1) No governing body of a public agency shall adopt any ordinance, resolution, rule, regulation, order, or directive, except in a meeting open to the public and then only at a meeting, the date of which is fixed by law or rule, or at a meeting of which notice has been given according to the provisions of this chapter. Any action taken at meetings failing to comply with the provisions of this subsection shall be null and void.
(2) No governing body of a public agency at any meeting required to be open to the public shall vote by secret ballot. Any vote taken in violation of this subsection shall be null and void, and shall be considered an “action” under this chapter.
"If they voted in a secret meeting to spend $400,000 and didn't bring it to a public vote, that's completely illegal," said Toby Nixon, president of Washington Coalition for Open Government.
"If the vote was held behind closed doors in executive session, whether it was part of a regular meeting or a special meeting, then under the Open Public Meetings Act, that action is null and void," he said. "If their meeting where they agreed to the payments to the superintendent was done by a secret vote or in a special meeting where it wasn't on the agenda, then it's null and void. They would have to have a public meeting."
Nixon said it would require a lawsuit against the board to nullify its agreement with Shonny Bria, the district's former superintendent, however. Any citizen can bring a lawsuit dealing with violations of the Open Public Meetings Act.
"Somebody needs to file a lawsuit," Nixon said.
Battle Ground Public Schools board President John Idsinga did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.
The audit of Battle Ground Public Schools already is underway at the district's headquarters, said Thomas Shapley, deputy director of communications at the state auditor's office.
After the news of the secret buyout with Shonny Bria was released, the district's transitional administrators requested an accountability audit. It appears the school board and Bria kept the buyout secret even from the district's top administrators.
The district's audit was not scheduled to be performed until late fall. The state office is providing both an accountability audit and a financial statement audit.
The state "hopes to issue reports on both audits by Thanksgiving if the financial reports are ready in time," Shapley said.
But if the financial reports take longer, the accountability audit report still should be issued by Thanksgiving, he said. He said the auditors and the school district will have an audit conference, probably during the week of Oct. 7.
"It will be interesting to see what our own audit comes up with. It's good the school board called us and requested an objective audit. We take our mission very seriously, which is holding government accountable," Shapley said.
School board's letter
As reported in Wednesday's Columbian, on Tuesday the district released a letter written by the school board stating the board's "lack of transparency has caused us to violate the trust of those we serve."
The school board wrote the letter at its Monday night meeting. After the agenda was completed, the board went into executive session to discuss undisclosed personnel issues. The discussion lasted longer than planned, and when the board emerged from executive session, everyone else had left. At that point, the board wrote the letter acknowledging they had violated the public trust.
The letter was not on the regular meeting agenda and there was no indication in the public portion of the meeting that a letter was going to be discussed.
Nixon of the Washington Coalition for Open Government says the way the school board wrote and signed the letter without giving district patrons a heads up about the letter "is in conflict to the spirit of Open Public Meetings law."
"The way the law works is that if the governing board needs more time for an executive session than what they announced, then the chair is supposed to come out of the executive session and announce they need more time and declare how much more time the board is going to need for executive session," Nixon said. "They need to announce how much longer it's going to be so that people can determine whether they want to wait around.
"To come back from an executive session and there's no other business on the agenda, and to add additional business that wasn't on the agenda, that is in conflict to the spirit of Open Public Meetings law," Nixon said. "The proper thing to do, even if the law doesn't specifically require it, is to announce that additional business may be conducted after executive session.
"By the letter of the public meetings act, it's not a violation if they come back (from executive session) and conduct additional business without giving people some notice that was a possibility," Nixon said. "But it's not transparent."
If they extended the executive session and didn't come out and announce that it was being extended and how much more time they would require, then that's a violation, he said.