SEATTLE — The Washington Liquor Control Board broke the state’s open public meetings law 17 times as it began working on rules for the recreational marijuana industry, a judge ruled.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Christine Schaller issued the ruling Friday in a case brought by Arthur West, a critic of the legal pot law. The judge said that although the board broke the law, it didn’t take any actions at the meetings that would warrant throwing out the marijuana rules it eventually adopted.
The meetings at issue came in the first three months of 2013, soon after voters approved Initiative 502. As the three board members — Sharon Foster, Chris Marr and Ruthann Kurose — traveled around the state holding public hearings about the legal marijuana rules, they also sometimes met quietly with local police, officials and prevention groups.
“In the early months following passage of I-502, there were many questions about what legalization meant for local communities,” board spokesman Brian Smith said in an email Monday. “When Board members traveled around the state to hold public forums, they took time to meet with representatives of local government, law enforcement and the prevention community, typically at their request. At these meetings, LCB staff shared the proposed timeline for implementation, explained the process the agency would use for gathering feedback and Board members listened to any concerns.”
West said the private nature of the meetings obscured the information the board was working with as it developed the rules, which covered nearly every aspect of the new legal pot industry, from what constitutes a serving size of marijuana to what sorts of security systems licensed pot businesses must have.
“The rest of us didn’t get to participate in those meetings or find out what was said,” West said.
The judge said she would hold a hearing later this month about whether the board members broke the law knowingly.
If they did, the board members could each be liable for penalties of $100 per violation, said Michele Earl-Hubbard, a Seattle open-government attorney who is not involved in the case.
Judges around the state have been reluctant to void actions taken by agencies over violations of the open meetings act, Earl-Hubbard said.
“It doesn’t incentivize anybody to follow the law,” she said.