University did not violate law by deciding new president’s salary in secret, judge rules

HAWAII — The Society of Professional Journalistssays it will appeal a judge’s ruling that the University of HawaiiBoard of Regents did not violate the state open-meetings law whenmembers discussed the salary and employment of its incoming presidentin several closed meetings.

Circuit Court Judge Virginia Lea Crandall refused the HawaiiSPJ’s request for a temporary restraining order that would requirethe board of regents to hold another vote on the president’s salary,ruling that the board may discuss issues relating to the employmentand salary of a new president privately.

The Hawaii SPJ and graduate student Mamo Kim, the plaintiffsin the suit, claimed the board violated the open-meetings lawby setting incoming president Evan Dobelle’s salary at $442,000a year in an executive session.

Crandall said the board of regents gave proper notice to thepublic about a February meeting in which the regents indicatedthey would go into an executive session to discuss issues relatingto hiring a new university president. Crandall agreed with theuniversity’s claim that this session was recessed and reconvenedand that issues relating to employment and salary of the new universitypresident were discussed.

"The Sunshine Law does not prohibit an executive sessionfrom being recessed and reconvened within a reasonable amountof time," Crandall said in her opinion. "The Court finds,under the circumstances of this particular case, that the termsand conditions of employment are an essential part of the decisionto hire, and it was appropriate to discuss those matters in executivesession."

The university said that closed-door meetings held on March1 and 5 were continuations of a Feb. 23 open meeting, and thatDobelle’s hiring and salary were decided during a March 12 openmeeting.

Carl Varady, the attorney representing the Hawaii SPJ, calleddecision disappointing. He said he will ask the state supremecourt to hear the case sometime within the next month.

"We think it’s a complete subversion of the open-meetingsact, and we’re going to take it to the Hawaii Supreme Court,"Varady said.

SPJ President Stirling Morita said he is worried by the potentialeffects the ruling could have on the public’s access to meetings.

"It could give license for people to continue meetings,"Morita said. "You could meet one time and give public notice,and meet another time and say you’re continuing the first meeting."