Monday, August 25, 2008

One citizen's attempt to shine a light on open government

Monroe School Board member seeks more open policies

Article from the Snohomish County Tribune

dated August 20, 2008

An outspoken Monroe School Board member's effort to shine light on district issues has for the most part backfired, she admits, but small victories have been made.

Board member Debra Kolrud, a staunch advocate of open government, has been challenging board policies since joining the board in January.

The Monroe School Board, per protocol, doesn't like surprises and only allows the board president to communicate positions of the board on "controversial issues." The protocol policy doesn't define controversial issues. But a series of events leading up to a discussion on school impact fees, which are charged to developers to mitigate costs associated with growth, prompted Kolrud to speak out against what she says is an example of the district's unfriendly public process.

Kolrud wanted the board to discuss a resolution supporting a reduction or elimination of the discount rate given to developers. School impact fees are used by the district to build new buildings associated with growth. Currently, developers are given a 50 percent discount on those fees.

In 2005-06, the district received $3,909 for each single family detached house built in the district's county boundaries. For each multifamily, two-bedroom unit, the district
received $3,494.

In 2008-09, the district projects to receive $3,139 for each single family home and $1,383 for each multifamily, two-bedroom unit.

Kolrud is alarmed by this trend. She knew she likely didn't have the votes to support a resolution, but wanted to get the discussion going on whether developers pay their fair share.

"She certainly has a right to continue pushing for what she wants," board president Tom MacIntyre said. The district agreed to have a discussion but wanted an attorney to brief members in private.

Kolrud believes the school administration tried to avoid a public discussion on the matter when it gave serious consideration to holding three separate meetings with the attorney in order to avoid creating a board quorum, which would have had to be open to the public.

In e-mails obtained by the Tribune between Superintendent Ken Hoover and board members, Kolrud protested the decision to have the discussions in private. Hoover, in consultation with board president MacIntyre, set up private briefings with consulting attorney, Grace Yuan. Yuan had represented all school districts in the county related to impact fees.

"I am proposing times at 4PM, 5PM and 6PM with no more than two board members present at a time," Hoover wrote July 8 to all five board members. The reason cited was that the discussion on school impact fees was a "politically sensitive issue," Hoover wrote. "I'm sorry if I implied that the reason for talking to our attorney was because of potential litigation," Hoover wrote in a July 10 e-mail to Kolrud. "At this point, this is primarily a politically sensitive issue."

Kolrud objected and cited state law which spells out what matters can and cannot be discussed in private. "Since almost all issues the board discuss and or [sic] deliberate can be viewed as 'politically sensitive issue' we do not have the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know," Kolrud wrote back to Hoover on July 10. "...This does not support the spirit or the intent of the Open Public Meeting(s) Act to conduct three separate meetings to avoid a board quorum. We are purposely keeping our discussion away from the public, which I can not be apart of." School impact fees tend to be politically sensitive because developers don't like paying them.

In an interview with the Tribune, MacIntyre defended the initial idea of meeting with the lawyer in private, describing it as a meeting with one's legal counsel instead of a public meeting.

After Kolrud's protest, the board opened the meeting to the public Aug. 11. At the meeting, the attorney, via speakerphone, advised against proposing a reduction of impact fee discounts until spring 2009. The board went along with this advice, not wanting to "rock the boat." Three board members were against continuing this conversation.

In a statement to the Tribune, Hoover said the district was concerned about the legal consequences associated with lowering the agreed upon discount rate. "The (private) meeting proposal was initiated in an attempt to respond to a school board member's request while trying to ensure all board members received the same information about Monroe's tumultuous history with this topic including past litigation that could have had a more than $1 million financial impact," Hoover wrote.

"Varying summer schedules with a variety of people also played a role in the original meeting proposal."

This is not the first time Kolrud has challenged district policy. She tried to get the board to update its public records policy to align with state law. That is temporarily on hold while the district continues to research the matter.

She also requested the removal of a statement that she says is unfriendly and may discourage citizens from speaking to the board. New language proposed, though, appears to further limit the board's interaction with the public. The proposed draft limits the number of citizens wishing to speak to the board if they hold the same position. And reminds citizens that the board president may "interrupt, warn, or terminate public comment if it interferes with the orderly conduct
of the meeting."

A big thanks to Toby Nixon at Washington Coalition for Open Government for sharing this story with us.

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