The Examiner U-46 News Feed
U-46 debate lingers over access to meeting tapes
By Seth Hancock
As the Board of Education in School District U-46 debates access to closed session recordings, it appears the district is still struggling to follow the Open Meetings Act (OMA) by recently denying access to a board member.
As previously reported, the board held a committee meeting on Monday, Aug. 29 to discuss its policy Section 2.201 with the discussion centering around what, if any, closed session discussions can be made public, but the board also discussed the process in which board members can have access to those recordings.
In an email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, The Examiner learned that prior to the committee meeting, board member Jeanette Ward had requested to listen to four recordings (May 16, June 2, June 6, June 20) on Monday, Aug. 8 alongside board member Cody Holt. The FOIA response did not include the date that email was sent.
Donna Smith, the board’s president, had asked board members at a July board meeting to “come through me” to get access to closed session recordings, in contrast to the OMA, as well as asked for at least three days notice. She and board members Traci Ellis and Sue Kerr also said that an administrator was required to monitor as a board member listened.
That discussion in July led to the realization the board needed to update Section 2.201 of its policy in light of passage of House Bill 4630 which amends the OMA to clarify an elected official’s right to unfettered access to such recordings. The board changed its policy last year to require a majority vote of the board to gain access.
As the board was going to discuss what the process for access would be and some board members were appearing to misinterpret HB4630 to require a monitor, The Examiner emailed Miguel Rodriguez, the district’s chief legal officer, on Aug. 23 to ask if an administrator monitored Ward and Holt when they listened on Aug. 8.
Rodriguez replied: “No administrator monitored Board Members Ward and Holt.”
As it turns out, Ward and Holt were not given access to the requested recordings on Aug. 8 but listened to recordings on Monday, Aug. 15.
Ward said at the committee meeting: “I listened on I think it was Aug. 15 to some closed session recordings with Cody being present, and that seemed to work well. We gave Miguel some heads up that we wanted to listen to these meetings on this day at this time.”
Rodriguez was given “almost a week” of notice to prepare recordings for Aug. 15 Ward said.
Asked after the committee meeting to confirm what date she listened, Ward said it was Aug. 15 and on Aug. 8 “staff was unprepared to provide access.”
During the committee meeting the board discussed what reasonable notice should be when requesting access, and since “staff was unprepared” on Aug. 8 The Examiner emailed Rodriguez again for two simple details. Since the email obtained through the FOIA did not include the date sent, Rodriguez was asked how much notice was given by Ward for Aug. 8 and if she received access to the same recordings she requested.
Rodriguez did not respond to those questions but Mary Fergus, director of School and Community Relations, did to say all “media questions run through my office” because she is “the first contact for media.”
Fergus did not send the details requested and wrote “Mr. Rodriguez responded to all of Board Member Ward’s requests to listen to audio recordings in a timely fashion” despite no inquiry on Rodriguez’s response.
The Examiner emailed Ward asking for those details, and she responded that “I gave four days notice for my Aug. 8 request” by emailing Rodriguez on Aug. 4. She added that on Aug. 15 “the recordings I listened to… were not the same recordings to which I requested access on Aug. 8.”
At the committee meeting, board member Veronica Noland learned prior to Aug. 15 that Ward and Holt would be listening to recordings and said she had hoped to listen along with them but wasn’t allowed because of potential OMA violations as three board members may not be allowed to meet. Rodriguez said that two is fine without public notice, four or more is fine with public notice but three is a grey area in the law.
Noland said that the entire board should be given a heads up when another colleague requests access in case another board member wants to listen, but Ward said she doesn’t foresee that being much of a problem.
“All you would need to find is another board member who wanted to listen also and make an appointment,” Ward said.
Noland said that she did not believe there was need for anyone to monitor as a board member listens to recordings, something Ward contended at the July board meeting when Smith initially said an administrator would have to monitor. Ward did say at the committee meeting that the district received an outside opinion stating access must be “in the presence of” an official.
The OMA, as amended by HB4630, states that access to closed session recordings be “in the presence of a records secretary, an administrative official of the public body, or any elected official.”
Ward did suggest that the board’s policy simply “cite the law.”
At the committee meeting, Kerr and Smith did not continue to claim that administrative monitoring was necessary. Ellis did not attend the committee meeting.
Kerr wanted guidelines on what reasonable notice should be and Ward said guidelines “could be codified into policy.” However, if unfettered as defined means “not controlled or restricted,” shouldn’t the policy reflect that?
Board member Phil Costello, Holt and Ward all said in regards to what closed discussions should be made public that the expectation should be that all would be made public eventually and that what requires confidentiality should be debated.