The first course, a salad, was said to be delicious. The main dish was a chicken and couscous concoction, which had a delectable aroma. An artfully whipped chocolate dessert topped it off.
Except for the fact that the menu was accompanied by an official agenda, and the house was guarded by two uniformed police officers — one standing outside the house, one on the porch — it might have been any other night at the home of University of Washington President Michael K. Young.
In fact, it was an official meeting of the UW regents, an unpaid, 10-member board appointed by the governor to make far-reaching decisions about the state’s flagship university.
A lawsuit filed this month by a small animal-rights group shed light on a common practice not just at the UW, but among governing boards of five of the six state-supported four-year schools: dinner the night before a meeting, frequently at the residence of the university president — sometimes for social reasons, but sometimes to discuss matters that might not come up during the business-oriented meeting on campus the following day.
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In part, the lawsuit filed by the animal-rights group Don’t Expand UW Primate Testing seeks to challenge that dinner-meeting practice because, wrote attorney Claire Tonry, 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 alleges that the meetings are public in name only. On a national level, some universities have gotten in trouble recently for conducting university business in private.
But the UW says it follows the state’s Open Public Meetings Act to the letter.
“Our contention is these things are properly noticed, open public meetings,” said UW spokesman Norm Arkans.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and a member of the Kirkland City Council, isn’t convinced, saying the format of the meetings and the manner in which they are advertised raised questions.
“They’re on the hairy edge of compliance,” said Nixon, after hearing a description of how the meetings are publicized and conducted. “It’s probably following the letter of the law, but are they compliant with the spirit of the law? That’s another question.”
On the UW website this month, the dinner meeting, three committee meetings and the full meeting of the board were posted six days in advance. The dinner was listed, with its agenda, as taking place at the president’s residence, and the description read: “Dinner for regents, and other guests.”
An address was not given; Young is required, as part of his contract, to live in university-owned Hill-Crest, a 12,000-square-foot mansion at 808 36th Ave. E., in Washington Park, about two miles south of the UW campus.
Nixon said he is concerned that the UW website didn’t list the address of the president’s residence, nor does “president’s residence” show up on a campus map. “Whenever the (Kirkland) council has a meeting, the street address is always listed,” he said. “And I think that’s something that’s considered a best practice.”
Then there’s that line about dinner for regents and other guests:
“It just sort of seems like, wow … it seems like it would dissuade the public from wanting to attend,” said Judy Endejan, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in the state’s open records and meetings laws. “Who wants to go to a dinner meeting knowing they’re not an invited guest and will not be fed?”
Endejan, too, thought the dinner meetings probably did not violate the open public meetings law, but that the dinner at a private residence “might be off-putting to the general public.”
Last Thursday, after a story about the lawsuit, several people found the president’s residence. They were directed to a side door of the mansion by a UW uniformed police officer. The door led directly into an enclosed sun porch, which was joined to a dining room by two wide doorways.
There was no seating on the porch. A velvet rope divided the two rooms. Another uniformed UW police officer stood at the doorway between the rooms.
One man insisted on a seat at the table and dinner. When regents Joanne Harrell and Rojelio Riojas explained that dinner was only for regents and guests, he fumed over the arrangement and questioned the lack of any kind of seating for observers.
During the meeting, the door to the sunroom stayed unlocked, which made it possible for members of the public to come and go. But it seemed unlikely that the porch complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as is required, since it was divided from the garden by several steps. Both an unlocked door and ADA compliance are required as part of the Open Public Meetings Act, Nixon said.
Failing to comply
Nationally, the governing boards of some state universities have run afoul of their states’ open-meetings laws by making decisions in private.
Two years ago, the North Dakota attorney general issued an opinion that the state’s Board of Education, which oversees an 11-campus university system, was routinely violating the state’s open meetings law by making decisions in closed-door sessions, and that its chancellor was encouraging them to do so.
The Detroit Free Press recently filed a lawsuit against the University of Michigan Board of Regents, alleging that the board routinely violates that state’s open-meetings law by making many decisions in private.
Dinner meetings are common among corporate boards and even nonprofits, Nixon said. But he said they are not required to follow the Open Public Meetings Act.
The governing boards of five of Washington’s six public higher-education institutions hold dinner meetings before or in between regular board meetings, sometimes at the president’s mansion and other times at a local restaurant or a university building. For example, in September, the WSU regents had dinner in the Gray Room in Pullman’s Residence Inn. The dinner was listed as a meeting.
Western Washington University’s board of trustees gathers for dinner at the residence of President Bruce Shepard, but “the president and board members are adamant that these are purely social events meant to develop relationships and there is no discussion about Western,” spokesman Paul Cocke said in an email. The public-meetings law specifically exempts social gatherings from having to follow the open-meeting guidelines.
The only four-year public school in Washington that does not have a dinner before a meeting of its trustees is The Evergreen State College.
Mum about agenda
How does the UW decide what gets on the dinner agenda? Now that a lawsuit has been filed, UW officials won’t say.
The lawyers who filed the lawsuit might decide to use that in the lawsuit, said Arkans, the UW spokesman.
As for the agenda, the meeting — which was two hours long — covered a range of topics.
Both Young and Margaret Shepherd, the director of state relations, discussed the recent memorandum of understanding under which WSU pulled out of a medical training program run by the UW.
Shepherd described the higher-education budget cuts that she said are likely to lead to double-digit tuition increases.
Athletic director Scott Woodward talked for about an hour about the fallout of the O’Bannon v. NCAA class-action lawsuit and the subsequent ruling that will prevent universities from capping scholarship awards to athletes, among other things. The bottom line, said Woodward, is sports expenses will grow faster than sports revenues. Some schools — not necessarily the UW — may have to cut some sports, he said.
At meeting’s end, student regent Marnie Brown told regents that students were very concerned about the cost of the renovation of two residence halls.
The following day, the regents met again — this time to vote on some issues as well as discuss them. Young again recapped the medical-school-program agreement. The rebuilding of the new residence halls was discussed at some length, and UW student-government leaders did express their concern about losing some of the most affordable housing on campus.
But the legislative preview was not on this agenda. And Woodward’s discussion of the effects of the O’Bannon decision did not come up at all.