Politics & Government

UW regents sued over ‘sham public process’ in picking school’s president

An advocacy group for government transparency on Tuesday sued the University of Washington Board of Regents, contending the board conducted a “sham public process” and violated the state’s open-meetings law last October by secretly picking the university’s president.

In its lawsuit, the Washington Coalition for Open Government cited email exchanges among university officials, selection-committee members and others that indicate the regents had secretly selected Ana Mari Cauce before taking a public vote.

“The public saw only a predetermined ‘vote’ that was literally scripted in advance and conducted six days after the real decision, concealing any debate about filling one of the state’s highest-paid and most important jobs,” Katherine George, an attorney representing WCOG, wrote in the legal complaint.

Norm Arkans, the UW’s associate vice president for media relations, said in an email Tuesday the regents acted legally when making the presidential appointment.

“We indicated earlier we believe the Regents fully complied with the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act, and we still believe that,” Arkans wrote.

Arkans and board chairman William Ayer previously had stated that the board acted appropriately and didn’t violate the Open Public Meetings Act when selecting Cauce in response to The Times’ questions about the process earlier this year.

WCOG’s lawsuit noted the regents’ dubious presidential-selection process is but the latest of the board’s repeated violations of the state law, which requires governing bodies to deliberate and vote on hiring and other issues during public meetings. The suit noted that last year, a King County judge found the regents board had violated the law on 24 occasions by holding private dinner meetings at then-President Michael Young’s home from 2012 to 2014.

“This case is about the process, not the wisdom, of the presidential selection,” George wrote. “Above all, it is about defending the public’s right to observe the entire decision-making process so that citizens can play a meaningful role in important decisions.”

WCOG’s suit explicitly states the group isn’t seeking to overturn the selection of Cauce as president, but rather wants to hold regents accountable and to defend the integrity of the open-meetings law’s “citizen enforcement provision.”

Under increased penalties passed by the Legislature this year, members of governing bodies who knowingly violate the Open Public Meetings Act face fines of up to $500, up from $100.

WCOG President Toby Nixon noted Tuesday that a Washington court has never published a ruling that assessed a fine against a member of a governing body for violating the law, however.

If repeat offenders, such as UW regents, can continue to violate the law without any personal liability, “the penalty provision will be useless and the public will lack any effective deterrent to government secrecy,” WCOG’s lawsuit stated.

The suit cites several emails and other records The Seattle Times obtained through state public-disclosure requests this year that appear to show UW and presidential-selection officials conversed about Cauce’s appointment as if it were a done deal days before the regents publicly voted on the issue. The records, some of which were published online by the Times in February, include the prepared script Ayer used to conduct the regents’ special meeting that spells out the outcome of the board’s vote.

WCOG’s lawsuit comes 45 years to the day Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act took effect.