(BLOOMFIELD) - Indiana's Public Access Counselor has ruled in an advisory opinion that the White River Valley did violate provisions of the state's Open Door Law for not properly advertising an executive session that preceded its May 24 regular meeting.
Nick Schneider of the Greene County Daily World reports that Public Access Counselor Joseph B. Hoage noted that the WRV School Board held discussions at its May 24 meeting that went beyond what is allowable by the Indiana Open Door Act and then acted contrary to the requirements of the law.
The Save Our Schools (SOS) organization filed the formal complaint with the Public Access Counselor's office in early June.
The PAC noted in his 3 1/2 page opinion that the agenda notice provided by the WRV School Board "fails to provide the specific statutory citation and the language of the statute" - opting to list only that there would be a discussion of personnel and citing the statute number.
Hoage also stated, "As to the allegation that the School Board discussed issues during its executive session that went beyond what was allowed or properly noticed under the ODL (Open Door Law) ... I would note that I was not in attendance at the executive session nor is the Public Access Counselor a fact-finder. Advisory opinions are issued based upon the facts presented."
The PAC pointed out in his opinion that the law does allow for executive sessions in certain specific instances, but the Open Door Law "does not provide that a wide ranging discussion of all personnel matters related to the agency may be discussed. While the School Board could have conducted interviews for a new football coach in an executive session, it could not have a discussion on all things related to the football program."
Hoage also offered guidelines that state a governing body, such as a school board, shall certify by a statement in the memoranda and minutes of the governing body that no subject matter was discussed in the executive session other than the subject matter specified in the public notice.
The school responded to the original complaint through its attorney, Susan Traynor Chastain, of the Indianapolis law firm of Bose McKinney & Evans LLP.
Chastain pointed out in her response that the agenda for the May 24 executive meeting was "in advertently posted (on the school's website) for the items that were to be discussed in the open meeting that same evening."
Seeing that agenda prompted SOS members to look closer into what transpired at the meeting when establishing a school football team was voted down by the board in a 5-2 vote.
Traynor-Chastain, speaking on behalf of the school board, said, "We respect the opinion of the public access counselor and intend to comply with the law."
Hoage called this kind of a violation fairly common across the state, because in many instances the agency involved is unaware of the requirement to provide both the statue citation and the language.
"The reason to do that is any normal citizen goes up and looks at an executive session notice and just sees Indiana Code 5-14-1.5-6.2- 1(b) and they have no idea what that means. What we have interpreted the law to say is you need to provide not only the statute but the language of the statue and we've been saying that since 2005. I would say five or six times a year this issue will come up where an agency is just not providing everything that is required under the statute," Hoage explained.
Mark Buckley, spokesman for the SOS organization, issued a written statement after the issuance of the PAC's advisory opinion Monday.
"Our SOS group sought and received legal representation prior to filing an ODL complaint against the White River Valley School Board of Trustees (Charlie Records, Andrew Graves, Roger Weaver, Jason Davidson, Mark Downey, Glen Cundiff, Roger Shake). Therefore, it came as no surprise to our group, the Public Access Counselor ruled the WRV School Board to be in violation of the Open Door Law. Legally, we stand on very firm ground, and we are very confident the public access counselor will rule the WRV School Board to be in violation of our other outstanding complaints as well. As this will play out in the legal realm, timelines are indeed in effect, so our SOS group will await the PAC's future decisions," Buckley stated.
Hoage acknowledged that a second complaint for a similar violation for allegations related to the June 26 meeting notice has also been filed by SOS against the school corporation.
He's expected to issue an opinion on that complaint by July 25.
Hoage said since his initial opinion wasn't issued prior to the filing of the second complaint, he would be looking more into the future and see how the school board does its meeting notices.
Repeated violations could lead to more serious charges - including the levying of a personal fine of up to $100 against a person in leadership for the agency.
"We just issue an advisory opinion. The school doesn't have to comply with our interpretation of the law, but I know almost all of them do when we come out and say there is a violation. It's a quick and easy fix," he said.
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