KENNEWICK -- The Benton-Franklin Health District board may have violated Washington's Open Meetings Act in deciding by email to cancel sponsorship for a colon cancer billboard campaign last week.
The board's six county commissioners voted unanimously April 20 to allow the bicounty health district's sponsorship for placing three or four billboards titled, "What's up your butt?", in promoting colon cancer awareness in Benton and Franklin counties.
But the commissioners agreed -- through email -- to withdraw the sponsorship just one day later, based on negative feedback from people offended by the campaign title.
The reversal, which came after an exchange of emails, constitutes a serial public meeting, which is against state law, said Tim Ford, ombudsman for the Washington Attorney General's Office.
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"It sounds like they had an email meeting and made a decision," Ford said.
"All meetings have to be noticed and open to the public. With emails you can't do that," he added.
Dr. Larry Jecha, director and health officer for the district, said he emailed each commissioner Thursday after Jim Beaver, Benton County commissioner, who also is chairman of the health board, told him he had second thoughts about supporting the campaign.
Beaver was adamantly opposed, so Jecha decided to query the other five commissioners.
"I did the polling," he said.
The Herald has made public records requests for all the emails related to Jecha's polling of commissioners.
Bob Koch, Franklin County commission chairman, said he answered Jecha's email, noting the other commissioners' replies.
"I said: 'It sounds like you have a consensus'," Koch told the Herald.
"I don't know that email consensus is against the (state) rules, but it would be if it had been initiated by a commissioner or (health district chairman) Beaver," Koch said.
"I'm more concerned about Beaver telling Jecha to stop before any of us (five other county commissioners, as directors of the health board) did any emailing," Koch said.
Beaver said the emailing should not be viewed as a illegal meeting because the board's first decision to support the colon cancer billboard campaign wasn't even required.
"I'm not sure a formal vote was needed to begin with. It was more of an administrative function and the role of the health officer," Beaver said.
"(The board vote) did not involve budgetary issues. It was opinion only, so it didn't seem to be board related," Beaver added.
Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck said Beaver contacted him Thursday morning to say he had made the decision.
Peck said he thought the consensus meant the board would have to take official action later.
"It's my expectation this will come up at our next meeting," Peck said.
That is exactly what Ford said should happen.
"My recommendation is they do a re-do," he said.
"We can do that," said Benton County Commissioner Leo Bowman, who said he saw no problem in taking another vote because it would set the record straight.
Chris Mertens, attorney for the health district, said he did not attend the April 20 board meeting, nor was he privy to the email polling, and had no comment about it.
Ryan Brown, attorney for the Benton County commissioners, also refused to comment, saying no one in the commissioners' office had asked him to give advice about the email communications that led to withdrawing support for the colon cancer billboard campaign.
"Our office is not the enforcer of the Open Meetings Act," Brown said.