Monday, June 22, 2009

Attorney general says county school board violated sunshine law with serial meetings

The Ohio County school board violated the state open-meetings law by having a series of meetings, each having less than a quorum of members, to discuss extending a buyout offer for the superintendent, Attorney General Jack Conway said in opinion that was issued last week and released today.

The opinion was requested by Don Wilkins, editor of the Ohio County Times News, who alleged that the board chairman coordinated the meetings in order to get at least three of the five members to support a retirement buyout for Supt. Soretta Ralph. Wilkins had asked the board to give the weekly newspaper any records reviewed during the meetings and any written accounts of the meetings, to apologize for violating the law, and to pledge to obey it. Board Chairman Barry Geary "never did admit he broke a state law governing open meetings, but he said several times he would never do it again," Wilkins wrote in the May 28 edition.

When Wilkins appealed to the attorney general, Geary admitted speaking to two other members about the proposal. Superintendent Soretta Ralph alleged that Geary had contacted other board members to discuss how they would vote on matters to be dealt with at board meetings, and provided a statement from one member saying Geary had discussed the buyout with him by telephone.

The attorney general's decision (09-OMD-93) said there was no apparent dispute about the conversations, and cited two previous decisions holding that the law's definition of meetings -- "all gatherings of every kind" -- includes telephone conversations. However, it said it is unable to determine whether the meetings were held with the intent of violating the law. It also said it did not have the authority to order the board to produce the documents he requested.

Board attorney A.V. Conway told the attorney general's office that he had no advance knowledge of Geary's discussions with other members about the issue. Wilkins reported May 28, "The attorney said three members of a board cannot discuss something outside an open meeting and then hope to come to an open meeting and vote on that issue." He quoted Conway as saying, “Perhaps I should have had a discussion with the new board members before their first meeting.” Conway is the uncle of the attorney general.

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