Island Transit board selects director finalists in secret

Mike Nortier

Island Transit’s board of directors has selected three finalists to become the transportation agency’s next director, but in doing so it may have violated Washington’s sunshine laws.

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson, a member of the transit board, said the board members narrowed the applicants they are considering for the director’s position during a special closed-door meeting March 3. Selected were Mike Nortier, former commanding officer of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island; Christopher Phillips, also a former base officer; and Robert LaFontaine, a general manager for Twin Transit, a public transportation benefit area in Lewis County.

A fourth candidate was also considered, but the applicant is not moving forward with the interview process.

The four were among 15 people who applied for Island Transit’s top job, but their selection appears to have run afoul of the state Open Public Meetings Act. They were chosen behind closed doors in an executive session, which would constitute “action” that is not allowed under the state rules. A government body is permitted to go into executive session to evaluate the qualifications of a potential public employee, nothing more.

Case law, specifically Miller v. City of Tacoma, shows that any straw polls or elimination of candidates isn’t allowed.

Nancy Krier, the open government ombudsman for the state Attorney General’s Office, pointed to an article by the Municipal Research Center and the bar association’s desk book on public disclosure and public meetings. The Municipal Research article notes that while the RCW expressly mandates that “final action hiring” of an applicant for employment must be taken in open session, “this does not mean that the governing body may take preliminary votes that eliminate candidates from consideration.”

While the Miller case involves appointment of an elected official, the municipal research article states that the same reasoning extends to appointed positions.

Johnson, however, said she doesn’t believe the board violated the law because they asked the head-hunting firm to possibly do some final pruning of the four candidates by checking that they want to go through a public interviewing process, as well as some more in-depth checking of their pasts.

That means, she reasoned, that the consultants were narrowing the applicant pool, not the board.

Oak Harbor Councilman Rick Almberg, chairman of the Island Transit board, was out of town and did not attend the executive session.

Johnson said the board made the decision to discuss the candidates in private and narrow the list because it could potentially hurt a candidate’s career if it became public if he or she applied for the job. Afterwards, the board directed the firm to contact the four finalists and see if they were willing to go forward with a public interview process.

Once the consultant got the candidates’ approval, the board released the names to the public, she said. All were “highly recommended” by the search firm, she added.

The board members want to have public input in the process of picking the director. The plan, said Johnson, is for the finalists to have a reception with management staff, followed by a reception with all employees, followed by a reception with the public.

“The point is to get community feedback,” she said. “It gives the board the chance to follow up on any concerns the public may raise about a person.”

The next day the board will interview the candidates in public.

The dates for the meeting haven’t been set.

The new director will earn in the neighborhood of $120,000.

Ken Graska, the interim director, alerted the board last year that he wasn’t interested in taking the position permanently.