Opinion: Decatur School Board holding meetings at attorney’s office is inappropriateCity Schools of Decatur Administrative Offices. Photo by Dena Mellick
Decatur’s School Board has scheduled three meetings that are designated “closed to the public” for the purposes of discussing “personnel” matters.
But unlike other closed meetings, known as executive sessions, the meetings on Aug. 27, Aug. 28 and Aug. 31 are being held at the office of the School Board’s attorney, Bob Wilson.
As a result, it’s not clear how the public will be able to observe the required public vote to go into the executive session.
While the “personnel” matters being discussed are intentionally undefined, the School Board is in the process of searching for a replacement for outgoing Superintendent Phyllis Edwards. Executive sessions are not uncommon. In the majority of cases, these meetings occur at the end of regularly scheduled meetings.
School Board meetings and executive sessions are almost always held at the school system’s central office, located at 125 Electric Avenue. Executive sessions are permissible under state law for a variety of reasons. However, Decaturish has repeatedly raised objections to the practice of holding them at the offices of Wilson, Morton & Downs, LLC, located at 125 Clairemont Avenue, because that is not where the board holds its regular meetings.
We asked chairman Garrett Goebel why the meeting could not be held at the school system’s central office.
“In order to answer that question, I would need to divulge specifics of the nature of the confidential personnel matters, which is something I am unable to do,” Goebel said.
While the executive session may be closed to the public, the law is clear that the vote to go into an executive session must be conducted in public:
When any meeting of an agency is closed to the public pursuant to any provision of this
chapter, the specific reasons for such closure shall be entered upon the official minutes, the
meeting shall not be closed to the public except by a majority vote of a quorum present for the meeting, the minutes shall reflect the names of the members present and the names of those voting for closure, and that part of the minutes shall be made available to the public as any other minutes. Where a meeting of an agency is devoted in part to matters within the exceptions provided by law, any portion of the meeting not subject to any such exception, privilege, or confidentiality shall be open to the public, and the minutes of such portions not subject to any such exception shall be taken, recorded, and open to public inspection as provided in subsection (e) of Code Section 50-14-1.
The law also addresses how governments should provide the public access to public meetings:
The public at all times shall be afforded access to meetings declared open to the public
pursuant to subsection (b) of this Code section. Visual and sound recording during open
meetings shall be permitted.
The law says, “Every agency subject to this chapter shall prescribe the time, place, and dates of
regular meetings of the agency.”
Decaturish maintains that the public portions of these meetings should be held where the board traditionally holds them, not at the private office of the School Board’s attorney. It is not clear how Wilson intends to provide the public access to view the open portion of the meeting, or whether his office can accommodate the same size audience as the meeting room at CSD headquarters.
This is the second recent instance where the School Board has withheld information from the public citing exemptions and provisions of the Open Meetings and Open Records Laws. The School Board has refused to disclose sales contracts related to the possible purchase of real estate on the grounds that the contracts contain confidential information that could thwart a potential property purchase. Decaturish filed a complaint with the state Attorney General, who ultimately sided with the School Board’s contention that the record is exempt until the property is purchased or the contract is terminated.
We continue to argue that many of the pertinent details of that contract are already available, including the location of the property and its purchase price. Like the contract to purchase property, the decision to hold a meeting – even a closed one – at a location that is not used for regular meetings is one that goes against the spirit, if not the letter, of the state’s Sunshine Laws.