A lot of people in government these days make a real show about the need to be transparent, then turn around and do everything they can to conduct their most controversial business behind closed doors.
We’ve been reporting on the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission’s skirting of the state’s open meetings law.
The commission is the supervising authority for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The commission is made up of nine Washingtonians — three members from west of the Cascade Mountains, three members from east of the Cascade Mountains and three “at-large” members who may reside anywhere in the state.
The commission meets as a body each month. The time and place of those meetings are posted, minutes are kept and in many cases the meetings are live streamed and recorded for viewing on the internet.
These regular meetings are governed by the Washington Open Public Meetings Act.
In addition to meeting as a body, the commission has several committees, each made up of four commissioners.
The Washington Open Public Meeting Act defines a “meeting” as any gathering of a majority of commissioners assembled to deal in any way with official business. The committees discuss official business, but because there are only four commissioners they aren’t governed by the act. Unlike regular meetings, committee meetings are not recorded and posted online for people unable to attend in person. The department does not keep written minutes.
Here the state’s open meetings law is weak. Most states extend open meeting requirements to committees.
Most of the commission’s committee meetings are open to the public. Except, of course, when they are closed.
Where the law provides that public meetings can be closed only for a specific set of reasons, committee meetings can be closed on a whim. Commissioners discussing a particularly controversial proposal can keep the public out. This allows a more robust, albeit private, conversation out of earshot of anyone.
Where things really go off the rails is when other commissioners who are not part of the committee decide to attend the meeting. Such as a recent meeting of the wolf committee.
Chairwoman Kim Thorburn told the full commission on Oct. 18 that every committee member was there, plus other commissioners.
“We had a robust discussion among the committee members and other commissioners about our concerns that it has not been recognized in this current sort of upheaval that recovery of wolves in Washington has been highly successful.”
No minutes or recordings were kept.
We give commissioners the benefit of the doubt that they are working in the best interest of Washingtonians. But this approach is wrong-headed.
The law says that if there are five or more commissioners discussing public business the meeting is public. By not following the rules the commission is helping to erode the public’s trust in government — the exact opposite of what the law was intended to do.