Washington Fish and Wildlife commissioners plan to discuss wolves, cougars and other topics next month in committees that the department says aren’t subject to the state’s open-meetings law, even when a majority of the commission attends.
The Habitat, Fish, Wolf and Wildlife committees will meet Dec. 12 in Bellingham, the day before the commission convenes for its on-the-record meeting. The commission has invited the public to attend committee meetings, but it reserves the right to withdraw the invitation and close meetings.
Unlike regular meetings, committee meetings are not recorded and posted online for people unable to attend in person. The department does not keep written minutes.
“Though the public is invited to attend the commission’s committee meetings, these meetings are not subject to the public meeting rules that would require the department to keep and maintain public meeting notes or recordings,” a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman said in an email.
Over the past two years, commissioners have increasingly used committee meetings to talk about major issues. The talks precede regular meetings, which the public has a guaranteed right to attend. The commission closed a meeting of the Executive Committee in June.
The department, citing counsel from the attorney general’s office, said the Public Meetings Act doesn’t apply because each committee has only four of the commission’s nine members.
A majority of commissioners, however, attended some committee meetings in October, according to reports by the commissioners who led the meetings.
“What they did was illegal,” said Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington. “They should have told somebody to leave.”
The department did not keep a record of which commissioners attended the meetings. Committee chairmen verbally report to the full commission about what was discussed, but there are no written records.
“It wouldn’t hurt us to spiff up the reporting of those meetings,” said Commissioner Barbara Baker, who chairs the Big Tent Committee, a group whose topics include “strategic planning.”
Baker said that she recalled at least a fifth commissioner at the committee’s meeting in October.
She said she would “absolutely” continue to preside over committee meetings with a majority of commissioners in attendance. She said that she was shut out of a committee meeting three years ago.
“I tried to attend the meeting and was told I couldn’t go,” she said. “My own personal opinion is that the way we operate now is a definite improvement over where we used to be.”
Baker said the commission values transparency and that the committees are open unless the chairman closes it for a “good reason.”
Meetings governed by the Public Meetings Act can be closed for specific reasons cited in the law, such as discussing whether to fire someone or how to defend against a lawsuit. Meetings can’t be closed at the discretion of the chairman.
The chairwoman of the wolf committee, Kim Thorburn, reported to the full commission that every committee member was there, plus other commissions. They agreed, she said, “the trajectory of (wolf) recovery has been very positive.”
“We had a robust discussion among the committee members and other commissioners about our concerns that it has not been recognized in this current sort of upheaval that recovery of wolves in Washington has been highly successful,” she said at the commission’s Oct. 18 regular meeting.
The department was unable to say Nov. 27 which commissioners were at the wolf meeting. Efforts to reach Thorburn were unsuccessful.
She also reported the wildlife committee had “really robust discussions,” including about managing cougars.