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Published: Friday, January 6, 2012, 1:48 p.m.

Recording closed meetings could assure public trust

One of the more tumultuous stories here in recent years has revolved around the Everett School Board and its members' apparent inability to agree on much beyond their deep-seated animus for each other.

The ugliness reached full boil in August when Jessica Olson turned on a video camera to protest her colleagues' decision to go behind closed doors to discuss matters she believed under the law should be hashed out in public.

The resulting shaky video documented a physical fracas between board members. It also focused fresh attention on the state law that limits the circumstances under which elected officials can conduct public business in secret.

Everett's school board has since enacted policy barring the videotaping or recording of what the law calls "executive sessions." That approach is consistent with the advice of many government attorneys. They get chills over the prospect of recordings from frank, free-wheeling conversations about personnel problems, real estate negotiations and other matters on the short list of topics legally allowed during closed-door confabs.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government takes a different position. Its members this year are again urging the Legislature to modify the state Public Records Act to encourage voluntary recording of lawfully closed meetings.

The idea is simple: Recordings can provide proof that closed-door conversations are proper and follow the law. Those recordings also are there to help keep things that way, should the need arise.

The coalition isn't suggesting an end to closed-door government meetings. Rather, it wants state law modified to make recordings from such gatherings more likely by exempting them from Public Records Act requests. If somebody accuses a public agency of violating the Open Meetings Act, officials could voluntarily present the recording under seal for a judge to review and make a decision on whether the protected discussion remained in lawful territory.

The Port of Seattle commission already records closed-door meetings. The port sends them, once a year, to outside legal counsel to verify commission members are following the law -- a practice designed to ensure public accountability.

The coalition in 2008 tried get legislators to mandate that similar recordings become state law. It's now suggesting voluntary participation, with legal protections.

"A lot of agencies are not willing to start recording, even though they want to, until the recordings themselves are exempt" from disclosure, said Toby Nixon, the coalition's president.

The group is recommending other changes in state law to enhance open government. The full list, with explanations, can be found here. One of the more far-reaching proposals would establish voluntary mediation in disputes over public records requests and Open Meeting Act challenges. Right now, those disagreements are resolved by expensive litigation.
Story tags » LawsGovernment

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