The University of Washington violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act by holding regents meetings at the president’s mansion, a King County Superior Court judge ruled in a lawsuit brought by opponents of a new animal-research lab on campus.
The University of Washington’s governing board violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act on 24 separate occasions in 2012, 2013 and 2014, when its members discussed business over dinner at the UW president’s home, a King County Superior Court judge has ruled.
The judge’s ruling won’t stop construction of a $124 million animal research lab, an aim of the group that brought the lawsuit.
But Amanda Schemkes, a member of Don’t Expand UW Primate Testing, said the judge’s decision was the kind of outcome she had hoped for.
“We didn’t really fully expect that this lawsuit would stop construction of the lab, but we wanted to hold them accountable for holding meetings in secret,” she said.
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The animal lab was on the agenda during one of those dinner meetings, and it was unanimously approved by the board in a subsequent, regular public meeting on the UW campus in November 2013.
In her ruling, Judge Laura Inveen said the regents reconfirmed their decision to build the animal lab by voting on the matter a second time in November 2014, so construction won’t be affected.
Dinner meetings at the university-owned president’s house have been a longstanding tradition for the regents, an unpaid, 10-member board appointed by the governor to make far-reaching decisions about the state’s flagship university. The dinners are held the night before regular board meetings, and regents discuss business that is expected to come up the next day.
At the time the lawsuit was filed, UW officials said they believed the dinner meetings complied with the open-meetings law. They said the dinners were informal occasions during which no business decisions were made.
The UW later began publishing the agendas for the dinner meetings, but the description read: “Dinner for regents, and other guests.” And while the UW said the meetings would be held at the president’s house, an address was not given.
Attorney Claire Tonry, who represents the group Don’t Expand UW Primate Testing, wrote in the lawsuit that the meetings had “the purpose and effect of shutting the public out of this decision-making process and shielding defendants from accountability for their positions.”
Inveen agreed. She found that the regents’ meetings at the UW president’s mansion, Hill-Crest, were not “open and public” within the meaning of the law.
“I think we were talking about real, common-sense things here,” Tonry said.
When Inveen announced her decision Friday, Tonry said, the judge remarked that she could not find an address for the president’s mansion online herself, even though she considers herself a sophisticated user of search engines.
The animal-rights group was not seeking penalties in the lawsuit.
After the activists filed their suit in November, the dinner meetings were moved to the University of Washington Club on campus.
Don’t Expand UW Primate Testing has since launched a national campaign, No New Animal Lab, to try to halt the construction of the underground animal laboratory on campus. The lab would allow the UW to expand animal testing in research experiments.
Animal-rights activists are planning a march on the UW campus on Saturday.