A weekend getaway to Arizona by two of the three Port of Walla Walla commissioners and the agency's executive director has become a focal point for critics who say operators of the economic development organization are not as transparent as they should be.
Concern from some residents has been percolating since the trip took place a year ago and came to a head at Tuesday night's candidate debate hosted by the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce.
"Yes, I went on that trip, and, yes, I stayed. I slept on a couch," said incumbent District 2 Commissioner Mike Fredrickson. "There was no discussion of Port business, and I got to learn a lot more about the families I was with."
However, Barlow Corkum, who is running against Fredrickson for a six-year term on the commission, has said the trip is an indication of a greater transparency issue at the public agency.
"(Commissioners) are very naive about public perception," Corkrum said. "They believe free lunches are fine, trips to Arizona are fine. They've just been doing it for so long."
So what happened, and was it illegal?
In October 2010, Commissioners Fredrickson and Paul Schneidmiller boarded a plane out of Walla Walla with Executive Director Jim Kuntz. Respective spouses also attended. The final destination was a condominium owned by Kuntz and his wife in Phoenix.
With two of the three commissioners in attendance, the Port had a quorum. But commissioners said they had already been briefed on what they could and could not discuss on the trip by Port attorney Tom Baffney before they left. The trip, they said, was not the first of its kind.
State law allows members of a governing body, such as port commissioners, to travel together as long as they don't take official action.
"Action" is defined by the Revised Code of Washington as the "transaction of the official business of a public agency by a governing body, including but not limited to receipt of public testimony, deliberations, discussions, considerations, reviews, evaluations and final actions. 'Final action' means a collective positive or negative decision, or an actual vote by a majority of the members of a governing body when sitting as a body or entity, upon a motion, proposal, resolution, order, or ordinance."
In separate interviews, Fredrickson, Schneidmiller and Kuntz have all said absolutely no Port business was discussed during the trip. Fredrickson said the group attended two football games and a concert. "It was just a great weekend for seeing shows and getting to know people on a personal basis."
He said each family or individual paid for their own airline tickets and for attendance to the various events. He said Kuntz hosted them with beds and lodging accommodations.
The challenge with such trips is public perception, said Greg Overstreet, an Olympia-based attorney who represents all types of clients in Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act cases.
"I think that it's too easy for the public to be distrustful of their elected officials when their elected officials say, 'Trust us, we went to Phoenix and the one thing we didn't talk about was Port business," Overstreet said.
He said it may be possible that elected officials could meet socially without discussing business, but it may be too much to ask the public to believe that it's probable.
"It's a bad idea to go on trips and other social events with a quorum of the governing body for this very reason," Overstreet said.
Though commissioners have assured no Port-related discussions took place, the public has very little way to know this since they couldn't be there to witness.
"Conducting yourself this way puts you in a position where you have to tell people, 'trust me,'" he said. "I think it denegrates credibility."
He acknowledged the regulations are especially tough to follow in smaller towns, where some elected officials are bound to know each other and may even have been childhood friends.
That's the sacrifice of public office, he said. The risk of public perception can be a greater consequence than giving up the social relationship.
"There are down sides, and one of them, especially in a small governing body, is you create the potential of the picture of a violation," Overstreet said.
In the case of the Port, some residents have asked whether the approval of a raise for the executive director less than two months after the trip was somehow tied to the getaway. That question was raised even though the budget for 2011 was approved during the same time of year it is typically approved every year, and even considering that the executive director had not received a raise the previous year.
Fredrickson said he knows the value of public trust, and he and his colleagues did nothing to violate the law. He said the trip was never a secret that he kept from the public because it was purely social. Friends and colleagues were aware of the trip. "Anybody who knew me knew I was going," he said. He said he has no qualms about such social gatherings because they're a key way to get to know people personally, he said.
"That trust has got to be there every day," he said.