The Timberland Regional Library board of trustees has been playing fast and loose lately with the state Open Public Meetings Act.
The troubles stem from their deliberations over a new executive director to lead the five-county library system.
On July 8, the governing board emerged from an hourlong closed door session and passed a motion, without any discussion, to begin negotiations to keep interim executive director Michael Crouse in the job for another two years.
The state law designed to bring transparency to decisions by public bodies allows governing bodies to meet in executive session “to evaluate the qualifications of an applicant for public employment.”
However, the law goes on to say that “discussion ... of salaries, wages and other conditions of employment,” and final hiring action must be done in a public meeting.
A question immediately comes to mind: How could the board, in a closed door meeting, come up with the two-year time frame for Crouse’s job, plus direct him to start a program to groom a future leader of the library system? Those are clearly conditions of employment that should have been discussed in front of the public.
“Those are the kinds of decisions that should be defined in an open meeting,” said Olympia attorney Greg Overstreet, a former open government ombudsman for the state Attorney General’s Office.
While Overstreet was not at the library board meeting, his evaluation of how events unfolded suggests the board probably violated the open meetings act.
“If it wasn’t a technical violation, their action certainly violates the spirit of the law,” he said.
This isn’t the first time the library board has skated on thin ice when it comes to the open meetings law.
At its June meeting, the board members met in executive session and emerged with a motion directing the district’s attorney and human resources manager to begin negotiating with one of four finalists for the executive director job.
They refused to name the final finalist, claiming they hadn’t made a final decision.
Talk about splitting hairs.
Overstreet was critical of the board’s decision-making in June, too. And rightfully so.
“I think the decision made to enter into negotiations and meet with a single candidate should have been done in a public meeting,” Overstreet said.
Overstreet said the missteps by the library board are all too common for public bodies going through the process of hiring a new director or chief executive officer.
“I’ve seen this pattern of behavior so many times,” Overstreet said. “It’s very common with school districts.”
Admittedly, following the letter of the open meeting law can be inefficient and awkward, especially compared with hiring chief executive officers in the private sector.
But it was designed to require open decisions by public entities that work for the public, not stockholders.
Based on their recent track record, it’s time for the Timberland board of trustees to take a refresher course in the nuances of the state Open Public Meetings Act. The state Attorney General’s Office has resources available to help with just such a tutorial.
There are many reasons why the library board needs a midcourse correction in the way they conduct their business. First and foremost, they need to follow the law.
The library district has regulatory powers, including the ability to tax people for services. The board needs to maintain its credibility and public trust. It comes in handy when trying to convince voters to pass tax levies.
The library district is a public agency that needs to do a better job engaging the public in it’s decision-making.
Right now, too many decisions are being made behind closed doors.