An animal-rights group has filed a lawsuit against the University of Washington’s governing board, claiming it broke the state’s open-meetings law before approving construction of a $123 million animal-research laboratory building.
The group, Don’t Expand UW Primate Testing, says the UW Board of Regents should not have discussed the building project during a dinner meeting, and claims that a chain of emails shows the board illegally reached a consensus on approving the project outside of a public meeting.
But UW officials say the discussion that took place at the university president’s mansion was open to the public, and that, in any case, no action took place there.
The 10 regents routinely meet the night before each board meeting to have dinner at Hill-Crest Mansion, the home of UW President Michael Young, which is owned by the university and often used for UW entertainment.
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In part, the lawsuit seeks to challenge that dinner-meeting practice because it has “the purpose and effect of shutting the public out of this decision-making process and shielding defendants from accountability for their positions.”
The lawsuit describes the dinner meetings as closed to the public. But UW spokesman Norm Arkans said the dinner meetings are posted on the university’s website as open public meetings.
He said he did not know if members of the public ever showed up, but added, “They’re welcome to attend.”
Under the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, the governing body of a public agency cannot meet in private to discuss agency business, or to reach a consensus on a position to be voted on at a later meeting. Any action taken in violation of the act is null and void.
Amanda Schemkes, director of the animal-rights organization, and her attorney, Claire Tonry, announced the lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court on Wednesday, during a news conference on the site where the UW plans to build the $123 million animal-research facility.
The group opposes an expansion of primate research. According to the UW, the new building would allow the university to increase the number of rodents it uses in research by 10 to 20 percent, and the number of rabbits, pigs and primates by 30 to 50 percent.
The entire building is to be built underground, on Northeast Pacific Street between Foege and Hitchcock halls; the UW says the building must be constructed underground because of an agreement with the city of Seattle to preserve the lot as a view corridor between Pacific Street and Portage Bay.
But building underground has sharply increased the cost of construction, because the water table is high in the area. In a September 2013 meeting, the regents were so concerned about the cost of construction that the project was pulled from the regular agenda, and administrators were instructed to look for ways to lower the cost.
The UW’s agenda for the Nov. 13, 2013, dinner meeting shows the animal-research facility was the only point of business to be discussed that evening. The next day, during the regular meeting, the regents unanimously approved the facility.
The animal-rights group contends that several emails between staffers show that Orin Smith, chairman of the regents at the time of the vote, would not allow the issue to go through without a unanimous vote; that regents discussed the matter at dinner; and that they made a decision to support it.
Arkans, the UW spokesman, said that during the dinner meetings, “They can talk about whatever business they have to transact. But there were no actions taken then, there were no votes taken then.”
Don’t Expand UW Primate Testing says that discussing the issue at the dinner meeting meant that the group was “unable to educate the BOR (Board of Regents) about alternatives to animal testing.”
In the suit, the group calls the building “extremely controversial because it goes against a nationwide trend away from using primates and other animals in biomedical research, in favor of accurate, efficient, humane, and less expensive alternatives.”