In our opinion: School board should not hide behind OPMA fallacy

A couple of Oak Harbor High School students went before the school board this week to protest the principal’s decision to veto the drama club’s decision to perform “The Laramie Project,” a play that depicts a community’s reaction to a young gay man’s murder. The play was deemed to be neither age nor school appropriate, even though it’s been performed at schools across the state and the nation and contains material that is straight from the nightly news.

So what was the board’s response? Did they commend the students for their bravery in speaking up or their civic-mindedness? Did they have a robust discussion on a sticky issue? Did they even acknowledge the students?

Nope, the board members were mum. They claimed that their policy prevents them from responding to public comment.

In covering the meeting, the News-Times’ story pointed out that this is not the case. The board’s policy clearly allows them to respond, but it just says board members are not obligated to do so. That makes perfect sense. Often public comment doesn’t need an immediate response — but sometimes it does. The purpose of the policy, which is shared by other school districts, is to prevent a back-and-forth dialogue between the board and citizens, which is time consuming and often counterproductive.

After the story published, the district sent us an email claiming that the state’s Open Public Meetings Act prevents board members from responding to public comment. Again, this is not the case.

The News-Times contacted open government experts across the state about this issue and quickly got responses.

“This is complete BS,” wrote Toby Nixon, a longtime board member and former president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. “The OPMA allows ANY topic to be discussed at ANY meeting. At a regular meeting, action can be taken on ANY topic whether on the agenda or not. At a special meeting, final action cannot be taken on anything that wasn’t in the meeting announcement, but responding to a public comment is not ‘final action.’”

Nixon concluded: “If their lawyer told them the OPMA doesn’t allow them to answer questions during public comment, then their lawyer is wrong and needs to be replaced.”

Morgan Damerow, the open government ombudsman at the state Attorney General’s Office, was more circumspect. He also pointed out that OPMA allows agendas to be amended during a regular meeting.

“If a governing body was inclined to respond to a public comment, it could add an agenda item,” he wrote. “This would avoid concerns over taking action on a non-agenda item.”

The plain language of the statute is clear. RCW 42.30.077 states, in part: “Nothing in this section prohibits subsequent modifications to agendas nor invalidates any otherwise legal action taken at a meeting where the agenda was not posted in accordance with this section.”

Damerow urges caution in amending agendas during the meeting to take action because it means the community would have no forewarning and no chance for input. But this is hardly a concern when it comes to responding to comments from a couple of students. At the very least, the board could have acknowledged the concerns. They could have asked for a discussion to be added to a future agenda.

The Oak Harbor School Board is not the only local government board that makes a point of not responding to community comments.

The Island County commissioners, however, commonly respond to public comments during their regular meetings. It’s not uncommon for the mayor of Oak Harbor to ask staff members to respond to public comment or simply ask staff to contact the person after the meeting. Council members have responded during meetings. Both of these bodies are backed by attorneys with experience in open government matters who would prevent any straying from the law.

Moreover, it’s just good, responsive government. Responses don’t have to take up a lot of time or descent into a back-and-forth discussion. For members of the public, just knowing you were heard is valuable.

The school board members, who are all up for election this year, should consider this and not hide behind a fallacy.

Editorials reflect the view of the newspaper’s editorial board.