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State auditor reminds Bainbridge to follow law on open public meetings

Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag has put the city on notice that the state will be watching to make sure Bainbridge Island follows the state law requiring open public meetings.

Sonntag's letter didn't tell the city council anything it didn't already know. State officials told the council in October 2011, after concerns were raised about the Civil Service Commission, that the city must adhere to the Open Public Meetings Act.

In an April 4 letter, Sonntag recalled possible violations of the state's open meetings law during meetings of the Bainbridge Island Civil Service Commission and indicated city council members will share in the blame if its committees and boards do not follow the law.

"As you should be aware, the city council ultimately is responsible for the actions and activities of its boards and commissions," Sonntag wrote.

Sonntag also reminded the city that Bainbridge officials must provide notice of meetings and keep records of those meetings.

The letter comes after Kim Hendrickson, the former secretary/chief examiner of the commission, filed a whistleblower complaint with the auditor's office alleging violations of the Open Public Meetings Act. The state recently rejected the complaint because the auditor's office had no authority to pursue it.

In the letter to the city, Sonntag also said that he was also giving his audit team a head's up about the possible violations of the state law that covers public meetings as it plans the city's next audit.

The city of Bainbridge Island was last audited in December 2011. That audit covered the year 2010.

Jan Jutte, director of legal affairs for the auditor's office, said that the topic will be added to a list of audit items for the team to consider.

But there is no certainty on how much attention the city's compliance on open meetings will get in the next audit, Jutte said.

"I'm not sure how high up the risk list this will fall," Jutte said. "But it will definitely be considered."

The issue of the Civil Service Commission and its compliance with the state's Open Public Meetings Act was raised by Hendrickson last year when it became clear that at least two commissioners had met with the city manager without public notice.

The city responded by classifying the meetings as "special" and said they were not subject to the Open Public Meetings Act.

The State Attorney General's Office disagreed and said they were, however.

Hendrickson was fired by the city from her position as the secretary/chief examiner following her criticisms of police procedures, and has since formed the local advocacy group Islanders for Collaborative Policing.

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