Fire 7 Board conducting business outside public meetings, indicates e-mail
Messages add insight to Ashmore’s resignationBy Les Bowen for Lake Chelan Mirror | Feb. 10, 2009 | Original source
The Board of Commissioners of Fire District 7 may be conducting business outside of public meetings.
That’s what’s indicated in e-mail messages requested by the Lake Chelan Mirror under Washington’s Public Records Act.
“I would like to talk to you before you talk to the chief,” wrote Commissioner Dan Wright in an e-mail message to fellow board members Jim Malvey and Bob Torgerson. The e-mail was sent from Wright’s personal address on Jan. 8, the day the public learned that Chief Dennis Ashmore had resigned.
“I will be in town first thing in the morning so I will call you as soon as I get home unless you want to call me on my cell phone,” continued Wright’s e-mail.
A response from Malvey on Friday morning indicated the commissioners planned to meet and discuss district business, including the chief’s resignation and a public meeting the following week.
The implication that commissioners were conducting business through e-mail raised red flags for media law attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard.
“I think the e-mails are illegal meetings,” she explained.
The fire commissioners’ stated intention to meet outside of an official public meeting called further attention.
Earl-Hubbard said if commissioners met as indicated, “They held meetings and they were illegal under the Open Public Meetings Act.”
The problem she sees when public officials meet in secret is that the public loses the opportunity of watching agency business.
When Washington lawmakers passed the Open Meetings Act, they included language stating why public business must be conducted openly.
“The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know,” reads the Act. “The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
Elected officials who meet outside of public meetings do so without public scrutiny.
“They are depriving the public of that information and observation,” stated Earl-Hubbard.
The Mirror forwarded the commissioners’ e-mail to the State Auditor’s office in Wenatchee. The Fire District is currently being reviewed by the auditor’s office.
Once completed, the report of the State Auditor will be available at www.sao.wa.gov.
In addition to a possible public meetings violation, the e-mail messages show that commissioners knew as early as Jan. 9 that there was some confusion over the words “as requested” in the chief’s resignation.
Though Ashmore later indicated that resignation was one of three options he was given, commissioners continue to state they never asked him to resign.
“I think there might be some misunderstanding with tentatively decided to ask you to resign,” wrote Wright, “and the Chief saying ‘as requested.'”
Torgerson’s response added insight to the commissioners’ statements.
“The word requested was the focus point in a number of the comments last night,” wrote Torgerson in a Jan. 9 e-mail. “I would suggest that you point out to Dennis, that we did not have to present the option of resigning but did so in his interest. Further, remind him that he had indicated to us that he was going to come back the next morning and give us his answers and we emphasized our respect of him and were interested in hearing his presentation toward our concerns.”
Torgerson’s comments are in line with the position the commissioners have since taken: that resignation was presented as an option, but the commissioners did not make a specific request that Ashmore resign.
The full text of the fire commissioners’ e-mail messages is available at the Lake Chelan Mirror’s Web site, www.lakechelanmirror.com.