Emerson leaves meeting, claims lack of ‘sunshine’
By JUSTIN BURNETT
South Whidbey Record Island County
August 7, 2012 · Updated 3:24 PM
Disagreement over a recent executive session has sparked an Island County commissioner to request a review by state sunshine law experts.
In a news release Wednesday, Commissioner Kelly Emerson charged fellow commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola with abusing tenets of the Washington Open Public Meetings Act.
The board held a closed meeting concerning real estate transactions, one of several topics that can be discussed in secret, this past Wednesday. Emerson boycotted the meeting, saying the topic may have been real estate but the discussion did not meet the intention or standards of the state rules.
“I am asking the Attorney General’s Office to review this potential abuse of our sunshine laws,” said Emerson, in the news release. “The public has a right to know what its local government is doing.”
Board Chairwoman and Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said there isn’t anything illegal about discussing real estate behind closed doors. It’s an allowed practice under state law and has been for a long time, she said.
“It wasn’t anything unusual,” she said. “This isn’t something new.”
When asked if she thought she did anything wrong, Price Johnson said, “No, I know we didn’t.”
Emerson did not directly identify in the new release what was being discussed, saying she would “err on the side of caution” until the issue had been reviewed by Tim Ford, state assistant attorney general for government accountability.
However, Emerson did reference Whidbey Island Naval Air Station’s proposal to install a new jet fuel pipeline to the airbase. She stated that Oak Harbor has already reached an agreement with the Navy for portions of the pipeline to be put in the public right of way along Regatta Drive and that a similar agreement is needed with the commissioners for the parts of the pipeline that would cross unincorporated Island County.
She noted that the city agreed and discussed the issue in open session and questioned why the board could not do likewise.
Real estate is allowed to be discussed in secret if public knowledge has the potential to affect the price of property. In a later interview, Emerson said such issues are irrelevant because other laws dictate how much public entities can buy or sell property for. There is nothing at risk to warrant the executive session, she said.
Price Johnson declined to talk about the details of the closed meeting but did say there were “legitimate reasons” to hold it and that state public open public meeting rules were followed. She questioned how Emerson could even be sure the board acted inappropriately when she wasn’t there to witness what was discussed.
Price Johnson also pointed out that Emerson wrote the news release before the executive session even happened. She went on to say that there are more “productive” ways to address such concerns.
Ford, who is away on vacation, said he had not yet seen the request to review the incident but would look at it after he gets back later this month.
Contact South Whidbey Record Island County Justin Burnett at email@example.com.