Motion filed in suit against ASD

ARLINGTON — New developments have emerged in a lawsuit charging the Arlington School District with violating the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

In the spring of 2008, the Spokane-based non-profit Center For Justice filed a lawsuit against the school district, claiming that the district’s board of directors conducted study sessions and executive sessions without giving adequate public notice, and alleging 144 violations of the public meetings act from March of 2006 to May of 2008.

On July 20, the center filed a motion for summary judgment in Snohomish County Superior Court, arguing that the evidence supports their claims about the school board’s meetings. The center is asking a judge to find the district guilty of violating the meetings act, since center officials now believe there’s enough evidence to support their charge that the matter doesn’t need to go to trial. A court hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 19.

Greg Overstreet, the lawyer representing the center, has expressed the hope that the district’s policies will change, fines will be paid and the center will be reimbursed for its attorney fees, as well as for the investigative work involved in identifying the alleged violations of the act. Overstreet further stated that the district “has admitted to many facts” indicating a violation of the act, while Arlington school officials have stated that there’s ample proof that the board has not routinely violated the act.

Overstreet explained that the act is intended to make government meetings and documents open to taxpayer oversight, albeit with limitations regarding personnel matters, pending litigation and matters that would affect real estate prices.

“It exists to allow the public to see the decision-making process of their elected officials,” Overstreet said. “It appears that the Arlington School District has taken several steps to thwart the viewing of this public process.”

Overstreet claimed that executive sessions were conducted without convening open public meetings, with insufficient basis under the law, and without announcing when those sessions would conclude. He further alleged that the school district did not provide proper notice for its regular or special meetings.

“The district’s own minutes show that it conducted retreats that did not comply with the state’s Open Public Meetings Act,” Overstreet said. “The district was warned about its methods of conducting executive sessions in a state audit, and changed its policies on paper, but it does not appear to have stopped committing these violations, which appear to have been consistent over a two-year period. I can’t say whether they continued after that period. They could still be going on.”

Overstreet noted that fines for violating the act could run $100 per meeting, to be paid out of personal rather than district funds. He deemed the reimbursement of attorney fees to be likewise appropriate, given the “enormous undertaking of time, money and organization of facts” required, including the thousands of pages of meeting minutes and public records researched, since “we don’t do things half-cocked.”

The district has maintained its denials that the board purposefully violated the act, and Dave Hokit, the lawyer representing the district in this case, explained that the district filed a motion for summary judgment against the center July 22. Hokit noted that both motions should be heard Aug. 19. In the meantime, Overstreet added that both sides will file responses to each other’s motions by Aug. 8, after which both sides will reply by Aug. 14 to each other’s filed responses.

Hokit explained that the district’s motion is seeking the dismissal of the center’s claims that special meetings were being conducted without required notice, on the grounds of evidence that Hokit argued shows that the district did give proper notice. The motion likewise seeks the dismissal of penalties assessed against individual members of the school board, on the grounds that, according to Hokit, no proof exists that the board members who attended the meetings in question knew they were in violation of the public meetings act. Furthermore, the motion is seeking court sanctions against the center, which Hokit claimed had failed to meet its requirement for sufficient reasons to seek their suit in the first place.

As for the executive sessions, Hokit acknowledged that the district is “not challenging directly” the claims of the center. He explained that the 2007 state audit, which covered the period between September of 2005 and August of 2007, did indeed show that the district had received an “exit item” for its executive sessions, but he clarified that “exit items” are considered far less serious than either “management letters” or “findings.” Based on the exit item’s recommendations, the school board rescheduled its executive sessions to occur after its open sessions, whereas the executive sessions had previously preceded the open sessions.

“It’s more convenient for the public than just sitting around and waiting for the board to come back out,” Hokit said. “The audit told the district that it needed open sessions during which to announce its executive sessions. The district received this recommendation in 2007, and then had a lawsuit filed against it in 2008, after this matter had already been brought to its attention. This was not an effort to do anything in secret.”

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