Lawsuit claims Richland board violated open meeting law

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An open meeting advocate from Western Washington has sued the Richland School District and three board members over last week’s COVID mask vote.

Richland board members Audra Byrd and Semi Bird have said they did nothing wrong when Bird made a motion and they voted at a special meeting last week to defy a Washington state mandate and make masks immediately optional in schools.

But two other school board members said they felt “ambushed” and blindsided by the motion, and said they didn’t know they would be discussing or voting on that issue.

Last week, the Washington Coalition for Open Government, also known as WashCOG, called out the meeting as a potential violation of the state Open Public Meetings Act.

The open government watchdog group’s Secretary George Erb told the Tri-City Herald he brought the issue to Seattle Attorney Kathy George who agreed the agenda for the special meeting failed to meet the requirements.

“The agenda line item, ‘Resolution No. 940 – Local Control,’ doesn’t tell the public what the board was going to vote on, especially in the absence of a draft resolution or any elaborations,” Erb told the Herald in an email. “Frankly, it looks like a stealth agenda item.”

Now, Arthur West, a well-known open meeting advocate, has filed a lawsuit naming the district, the school board and the three people who voted for the measure, Bird, Byrd and Kari Williams.

If he’s successful the board members or board could face a $500 fine for each violation. They also may need to pay court costs.

While the state Attorney General’s Office provides information about the open meeting law, it’s up to people or other institutions to challenge potential violations with a lawsuit.

West, an Olympia resident, has filed many challenges, including in Seattle, Yakima and the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

Special meeting vote

Bird’s motion during a Feb. 15 special meeting to make masks optional in the Richland School District has raised questions whether the public was properly notified about what the board would be voting on.

While state law doesn’t limit governments from adding items to agendas at regular meetings, it is more picky about what happens at special meetings.

The notice must be sent out to the public 24 hours in advance of the meeting and needs to say where the meeting takes place and “the business to be transacted.”

“Final disposition shall not be taken on any other matter at such meetings by the governing body,” according to state law.

Other than an executive session, last week’s special meeting agenda only had a single item listed: “Resolution 940 – Local Control.”

No written resolution was included with the agenda or presented in writing at the meeting.

Agenda item

West told the Herald on Wednesday there wasn’t any way people looking at the agenda would know the school board planned to defy Washington state indoor mask requirement.

“This is the archetype of the type of decision that a local government should not make in secret,” West said. “It required further secret meetings to cure the problems caused by the first vote.”

The school board met in two closed-door executive sessions on the two days after that vote before deciding in another special public session on Thursday, Feb. 17, to instead make masks optional on March 21.

At this week’s regular school board meeting, Bird and Byrd maintained that their Feb. 15 special meeting’s agenda didn’t violate open meeting rules but they did not elaborate on their reasoning.

Neither could be reached Wednesday. And the school district’s attorney Galt Pettet also could not be reached.

At the Feb. 15 meeting, Williams, the board vice president, introduced the item as a “discussion of local control regarding masks.”

She immediately turned the floor over to Bird for his verbal motion on the masks.

Shifting resolution

While verbal Resolution 940 ended up being about masks, it started out three weeks earlier at a Jan. 25 board meeting as a discussion about COVID vaccines.

At the time, the board members were concerned that students would be required to take the COVID vaccine.

Students in Washington currently are required to get vaccinations for hepatitis, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps and chickenpox to enroll in school. In certain cases, they may be able to get an exemption.

The state Board of Health has put together a group of people drawn from educators, health experts and members of the public to review whether COVID vaccines should be added to that list.

At the end of the Jan. 25 meeting, the board discussed drafting a resolution on how the state determines a COVID vaccination requirement for school attendance..

They pledged to talk about it during the Feb. 8 meeting, but that discussion was sidelined after nearly two hours of the public commenting about masking in classes.

At that point, board members referred to the resolution as a letter to the governor and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, according to Bird’s comments at that meeting.

“This is our opportunity to share how we feel in a representation of our community,” Bird said during the meeting. “We believe very strongly in local control.”

The board members, who were pledging to work together on crafting the message, decided that they would hold a special workshop on the issue.

There was no discussion about a resolution concerning masks.

A Surprise Motion

Notice for the Feb. 15 special meeting went out on Sunday, Feb. 13, and the agenda contained two items.

The first was an executive session to discuss personnel, legal and real estate issues, and then Resolution 940. The board packet didn’t contain any information about Resolution 940.

After the closed-door executive session, the school board came into a public session at 4:20 p.m.

As a crowd of people opposed to COVID requirements gathered in the board room, Byrd told them that they needed to put on a mask for the start of the meeting.

“Then we’re going to talk about things,” she said. “We’re going to be talking about resolutions and talking about masks. Just for today, you need to put on a mask at the beginning of the meeting.”

Bird followed that up by saying, “There is a time and a place,” and he told the crowd to “have faith.”

He added a cryptic, “If we can’t do it. We’ll all be gone. Take a hint. Our hearts are in the right places.”

While it appeared that Bird and Byrd knew about the upcoming motion, longtime board member Rick Jansons said he was “ambushed.”

“This was not given to any board members ahead of time,” Jansons said at the time. “I was led to believe that we were talking about a local control resolution, about a resolution to send to the governor’s office.”

Board President Jill Oldson also told the Herald after the meeting that she was blindsided by the sudden resolution.

This story was originally published February 24, 2022 12:55 PM.

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Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.