KALAMA — Kalama city staff, former Mayor Pete Poulsen and council members appear to have violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act during last year’s conflicts over management of the library, a Daily News investigation has found.
The first violation reportedly occurred in early May, when former Mayor Pete Poulsen called for and held a special library board meeting without posting a public notice, as required by the open meetings law.
In December, council members signed an apparent letter of no confidence against Library Director Louise Thomas without first voting on or approving it in a public meeting. In this case, council members individually showed up at city offices and signed the letter, which also was instigated by Poulsen.
Unannounced board meeting
The potential violations occurred during conflicts between library staff, Poulsen and city administrators. Both Thomas and five-hour-a-week librarian Molly Ciancibelli were accused by city staff of acting “insubordinate” during the library’s renovation.
In an email dated May 8, City Clerk/Treasurer Coni McMaster asked library board members if they were available for a special meeting on May 11, one week prior to the board’s regular meeting on May 18.
McMaster sent the email on behalf of Poulsen to library board members Carole Eby, Cynthia Svensson, Pix Basso, Shannon Ripp and Heather Jones. The email reads: “Mayor Poulsen has asked that I set up a meeting with the Library Board for this Thursday at 4:15. Could you please let me know if you are available? Thank you.”
The special meeting took place at City Hall, as the library was still under renovation at the time. McMaster said that in addition to herself and the library board, Poulsen and City Administrator Adam Smee were also present. Smee and Poulsen did not typically attend library board meetings.
When asked if the meeting was open to the public, McMaster said she wasn’t sure.
“I don’t think any public attended. I don’t think any tried to. I can’t say for sure. I’m not sure the meeting got published so I’m not sure they were aware of it. But I can’t say it was closed either,” she said in an interview Thursday.
State law requires that public agencies and subagencies, including library boards, give at least 24 hours notice before holding a special meeting. RCW 42.30.080 demands that the notice be “delivered to each local newspaper of general circulation and local radio or television station,” “posted on the agency’s web site,” and “prominently displayed at the main entrance of the agency’s principal location and the meeting site.” No such notice appeared on the city of Kalama’s website.
Meetings are usually posted to the city’s calendar, but there is no record of a calendar post for the May special meeting.
“I don’t know if that one got published on the calendar,” said McMaster. “It all happened very fast.” When asked if a notice was published elsewhere on the website, she responded: “Not that I’m aware of.”
In a Nov. 6 email between former councilman Dominic Ciancibelli and Poulsen, the former mayor wrote: “As far as my secret meeting with the board I, as the Mayor I have the right to call a meeting of any board at any time that I see fit too [sic].”
Poulson hung up when a Daily News reporter phoned him last week. He did not respond to emails sent to him Monday.
Molly Ciancibelli, whom Poulsen fired just before he left office in December, said in an interview with The Daily News that personnel issues were discussed during the special meeting. (Discussions of personnel matters can be held in a closed session, but the sessions must be publicized and any action must be taken in open session.)
“The reason he called it,” she said, “was to announce that he was going to fire Louise (Thomas), the director, and he was going to have me send in a letter of resignation.” Though at first secret, Ciancibelli said that “there was a leak ... and now everyone refers to it, everyone knows about it.”
Council acting outside public meeting
According to McMaster, sometime around December council members individually came into City Hall to sign a letter regarding library staff.
“It was done at the mayor’s request,” McMaster said.
The open meetings act prohibits council members from acting and making decisions outside meetings unless they are merely signing a document approved during a public meeting. In such a case, council members would be engaging in a simple “ministerial act,” according to Nancy Krier, assistant Attorney General for Open Government.
However, there is no record that the council ever openly approved the letter or formally voted to issue one during an open public session. “If there was a collective decision among a board to issue a personnel letter, or a collective decision on how that letter was to be processed.... that collective decision about sending and processing the letter would also need to occur at a meeting open to the public,” Krier said in a memo to The Daily News.
McMaster and other officials would not disclose the letter’s contents because it involved a personnel issue. However, Dominic Ciancibelli told The Daily News that a council member leaked him the letter and it is a council vote of no confidence against Thomas, the library director.
State law specifies that violators of the open meetings law are subject to a $500 penalty. Any person can bring an action against those in violation.