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Dec. 5, 2022

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County commissioners may have violated meetings law

Mielke's comments raise concerns that a decision was made behind closed doors

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County Commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore interview Craig Pridemore for the vacant District 3 seat Tuesday. After three hours of interviews, the commissioners entered a closed executive session.
County Commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore interview Craig Pridemore for the vacant District 3 seat Tuesday. After three hours of interviews, the commissioners entered a closed executive session. When they re-emerged, they said they hadn't reached a consensus on whom to appoint. Photo Gallery

Clark County commissioners may have violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act when they convened a secret session to agree on appointing a new county commissioner.

The commissioners’ executive session on Tuesday was meant to discuss the qualifications of the three candidates vying for the vacant board seat. Concerns arose from how Commissioner Tom Mielke, the board’s chairman, announced the meeting and how he described its purpose.

Following their public interviews with the candidates, commissioners didn’t cite the statutory exemption that would have allowed them to move into an executive session, as required by state law. Mielke also said he and Commissioner David Madore were going to meet in private to “see if we can agree on who would be the best person to fill (the seat) during the interim.”

State law says public officials may only discuss the credentials and qualifications of appointment candidates during a closed session. Reaching an agreement is prohibited.

When the Republican commissioners stepped back into open session 45 minutes later, Mielke said he and Madore had reached an impasse on whom to appoint.

Nancy Krier, the state’s assistant attorney general for open government, said the way the commissioners handled the closed-door meeting raises questions about their training on the public meetings law. A 2012 study conducted by the state auditor’s office found more than 250 open-government-related issues in Washington governments, most of which were tied to insufficient training.

“If that is what they did (reached an agreement), that would not be a permissible action in executive session,” said Krier, who watched videos of Mielke making the announcements before and after the closed-door meeting.

She was careful not to speculate on what the commissioners discussed in executive session. The county’s chief civil attorney, Chris Horne, attended the closed-door meeting and said the commissioners stuck to the script and only discussed the candidates’ qualifications for appointment.

Because Mielke and Madore postponed making a final decision and extended the meeting for another week, they may have skirted the most serious offense of taking a secret straw poll and taking final action away from the public’s eyes.

Other legal observers say it’s clear by Mielke’s comments that the meeting was intended to pick a candidate, or stall proceedings, and it entered a gray area of what’s permissible. Eric Stahl, a media law attorney for the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm in Seattle, said it appeared the commissioners took a private vote to postpone the meeting. Stahl provides legal representation and advice to The Columbian.

“Reaching an ‘agreement’ in executive session to be later announced in public — essentially what Mielke admits to trying to do in private session — is the classic case of taking ‘final action,’?” Stahl said. “Stated otherwise, the vote has to take place in public, and taking a de facto pre-vote … in executive session violates the OPMA.”

Horne, the county’s attorney, said he wouldn’t have used Mielke’s word “impasse,” adding there was no vote. Mielke could not be reached for comment.

“The only decision they made was they needed to continue evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates,” Horne said.

Commissioners will again convene in executive session at 1 p.m. Tuesday. A public vote of the two commissioners is scheduled to take place after the closed-door meeting, unless they again find themselves deadlocked. Commissioners have until June 10 to make an appointment; otherwise, the decision will fall to Gov. Jay Inslee.

One of the three candidates — Democrats Craig Pridemore, a former commissioner and state senator, Kelly Love Parker, the executive director of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, and Ed Barnes, a retired labor leader — will replace Democrat Steve Stuart. He stepped down in April to become city manager of Ridgefield. The term for the seat expires at the end of the year.

Pridemore earlier this month announced he was mounting an election campaign for the seat. He’ll face former Vancouver City Councilor Jeanne Stewart, who’s running as a Republican.

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