Washington open-government advocates sue five agencies around state
SEATTLE (AP) - Washington open-government advocates rang in Sunshine Week by filing lawsuits Monday accusing one regional and four local agencies of violating the state's public meetings law.
The Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency, Arlington School Board, Yelm Fire District, Port of Longview and town of Ridgefield improperly conducted public business in closed "executive sessions" or held illegal secret meetings, the complaints say.
They were filed by Allied Law Group, a Seattle and Olympia law firm that focuses on open-government cases, on behalf of the Spokane-based public interest group Center for Justice.
In the Spokane case, the groups said, William Dameworth was chosen as director of the clean air agency in June 2006 following an eight-month, closed-door process. He actually began work four days before the agency's board made a motion to hire him.
Dameworth's predecessor, Eric Skelton, quit because he had "simply had it" and believed the agency's board had become hostile to air quality regulation. Dameworth drew criticism by questioning whether artificially caused pollution was responsible for global warming.
Dameworth said Monday he didn't have any particular response to the lawsuit.
"All this stuff happened before I got here," he said. "The question is how serious is this, and is it really worth a lawsuit?"
Michele Earl-Hubbard, one of Allied Law Group's lawyers, said it obviously is.
"The entire process for how they chose him was flawed. They met in secret for eight months," she said. "It was a very controversial choice. Being shut out of the process on how he was selected was very disturbing to those constituents."
The state auditor's office cited the clean air agency for violating the Open Public Meetings Act in the hiring process. The agency improperly held closed search committee meetings without public notice and improperly made the hiring decision in a closed executive session, according to the audit report.
According to the other complaints:
-The Arlington School Board in Snohomish County failed to give notice of executive sessions it held before its regular meetings and apparently still holds secret meetings - despite being warned by the state auditor. Superintendent Linda Byrnes told KING Television of Seattle the district has changed its policies and said it and many other districts previously violated the law "out of ignorance."
-The Ridgefield City Council in Clark County held executive sessions without the city attorney present as required by law.
City Manager Justin Clary said Monday the complaint had been forwarded to the town's legal counsel and added, "We've been diligent in trying to meet all the obligations of the Open Public Meetings Act and we will continue to do so."
-Two Port of Longview commissioners last year, in replacing the outgoing third commissioner, broke the law by winnowing the list of candidates in executive session and later by going into executive session to choose the new commissioner - which they did by placing the names of two finalists in a hat and picking one.
The port's executive director did not immediately return a call seeking comment Monday.
-The Yelm Fire District in Thurston County held meetings in 2006 and 2007 without public notice and improperly conducted executive sessions. A district representative could not be reached after hours Monday.
The lawsuits, filed in superior court, seek to have any decisions made in violation of open-meetings law declared void, to have anyone who knowingly broke the law fined $100, to have injunctions issued against future violations, and reimbursement of plaintiff's costs and attorney's fees.
Sunshine Week is a national initiative led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to promote open government.
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