Did the University of Washington Board of Regents follow the state Open Public Meetings Law when it named Ana Mari Cauce as the new UW president? Some aren’t so sure.
Some came ready with prepared speeches of praise about their selection.
A stack of news releases composed of quotes from the board’s chairman and the soon-to-be-appointed candidate was on hand for quick distribution after adjournment.
And, in a reception room across Red Square, refreshments chilled on ice for a post-meeting celebration.
But amid all the planning surrounding the University of Washington Board of Regents’ public vote and selection of Ana Mari Cauce as the university’s new president, some believe one key detail may have been lost: compliance with state law.
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Several open-government advocates and attorneys say the circumstances surrounding last week’s unanimous vote that permanently seated the popular Cauce in the president’s chair point toward a violation of Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).
“It’s absolutely clear that the decision was already made before the meeting and that (Cauce) had been informed about it before the meeting,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WashCOG). “And that’s plainly against the law.”
University officials said last week the board fully complied with the law by only taking final action during a public meeting, and an assistant attorney general who serves as Washington’s Open Government Ombudsman said she isn’t convinced a violation occurred.
But three media attorneys contacted by The Seattle Times separately came to a different conclusion.
“It certainly sounds like the real decision had been made privately in advance,” said Katherine George, an attorney for the Harrison-Benis law firm.
The regents’ process of selecting Cauce without publicly identifying or deliberating over other finalists is the same approach the board has used to choose past university presidents, including her predecessor, Michael Young.
The state’s OPMA, established to ensure transparency in government decision-making, requires that public governing bodies deliberate and take actions on hiring and other decisions during open public meetings.
The law explicitly allows boards to meet privately “to evaluate the qualifications of an applicant for public employment.” But should a board conduct a ballot in secret or even come to “a collective positive or negative decision” behind closed doors, the law states that action “shall be null and void.”
During the 22-minute special meeting, the UW’s Board of Regents advanced the name of one candidate for consideration as president, before several regents praised Cauce’s qualifications.
Chairman Bill Ayer, who said the board had met in executive session on Oct. 7 to discuss candidates’ qualifications, noted at the meeting that Orin Smith, the only regent absent from the meeting, also voiced his “strong support.”
Ayer then read from a statement noting: “We all think that Ana Mari is exactly the right person to lead the University of Washington,” before he called a voice vote that drew a unanimous round of “ayes” from the board. Cauce then gave an acceptance speech.
Shortly after, Cauce met with reporters, a few of whom already had confirmed her appointment in online reports before the meeting.
Among the details pointing to a possible violation, the lawyers said, was a two-page news release titled: “UW Regents name Ana Mari Cauce president,” that was handed out to reporters moments after the meeting ended. It included a quote from Ayer about the board’s delight in selecting Cauce, and a comment from Cauce about her gratitude for getting the chance to lead.
Assistant Washington Attorney General Nancy Krier, who works as the state’s Open Government Ombudsman, said last week she isn’t convinced the news release alone indicates a violation.
“I’ve seen boards have draft news releases ready in the event a decision was made,” she said. “It’s possible that they had more than one ready depending on the outcome.”
Norm Arkans, the UW’s associate vice president for media relations and communications, said his staff prepared only one news release to announce Cauce’s appointment after the regents’ office informed him “this was a possibility” before the meeting.
“But this doesn’t mean a decision was made beforehand,” Arkans said.
Since regents only call such a special meeting to make a presidential appointment, it logically followed the board was going to take an action, Arkans added, so he had his staff prepare for the possibility.
“Had the board voted otherwise or chosen otherwise or postponed taking action, then obviously the news release would have been round-filed,” he said.
Ayer, the board chairman, declined an interview request, saying he couldn’t discuss specifics of the regents’ executive session. Instead, he sent an emailthat said the board complied with the law.
“Prior to this special meeting, I did not poll the Regents or ask whom they would vote for in advance of the public meeting,” Ayer’s email said.
Krier, who noted board members can express their own viewpoints in private meetings, are sometimes able “to figure out if someone might be leaning one or another” without reaching a collective consensus.
Aside from the quickness of the selection process, the board’s action seemed to surprise no one before last week’s formalities.
Former Washington Gov. Dan Evans, who served as a UW regent from 1993 to 2005, said he learned by “talking with various people at the university” hours before the regents’ vote that Cauce would be named president.
“Things like that, it’s very hard to keep it totally under your hat as you get closer to the announcement stage,” Evans said.
Kenyon Chan, a UW chancellor emeritus who headed the 28-member presidential search committee, said the group “unanimously endorsed” Cauce among names of finalists forwarded to regents about a month ago.
Joanne Harrell, one of four regents who sat on the search committee, said two other candidates “popped to the top” of the list with Cauce. Some regents traveled out of town to meet and interview those candidates, she said.
“A couple regents met with them, then came back, and it was clear to them, too,” Harrell said. “It was just additional confirmation for them that the search committee’s thoughts were on track.”
Both Chan and Harrell declined to identify other finalists, saying confidentiality is necessary to protect their standings with current employers. Nixon, the president of WashCOG, also sits on the Kirkland City Council and noted when that body makes hires, “we always interview all finalists in public session.”
“I think that’s the best practice,” he said.
Whether legal or not, Duane Storti, a UW mechanical engineering professor, said the selection process should have been more transparent.
“People in general had no idea who, if anyone else, was on the short list,” said Storti, a board member of the UW chapter of the Association of American University Professors. “There was not an opportunity for faculty or students to see or converse with any of the candidates.”
UW regents have had past troubles complying with the OPMA. In April, a King County judge ruled the board violated the law on 24 separate occasions from 2012 to 2014, when its members discussed business over dinner at the UW president’s home.
In 1995, a King County judge ruled in part that UW regents held illegal meetings that violated the OPMA during a presidential search process that eventually led to the appointment of Richard McCormick. The ruling came after The Seattle Times sued over the secrecy of the UW’s search process.