Attorney general says school district violated open meeting law
The Douglas County School Board must hold a second meeting on Superintendent Pendery Clark’s contract after the state Attorney General’s Office determined the first meeting violated the open meeting law.
The AG’s office issued a statement Oct. 18 on three points – one, that it could not determine if the board had violated the law by not sending out agendas to those who had requested them; two, the agenda did not adequately state any action would be taken when in fact the board did vote to extend Clark’s contract; and three, the board did correctly post the agendas in public places.
The illegal meeting was held July 6 at the district office.
The board voted 6-1 to extend Clark’s contract to 2004. David Brady was the lone dissenting vote. Clark receives $92,611 annually.
Clark’s performance review, as are all personnel discussions, was held in closed session. The vote was made in an open session. However, according to the board’s secretary Pat Corbitt, no one other than Clark and the board members were present.
School board candidate Veronica Hulsey, who is running against Brady for the Area 1 seat, later approached the board, complaining she was not aware of the meeting because the agenda was not sent to her. She said she also felt the agenda was not posted far enough ahead of time to meet the law. When she was told to discuss it with the board’s lawyer, she filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office.
Corbitt said agendas for the special meeting were posted as required by the Nevada Open Meeting Law. She said she did not mail agendas to members of the media or anyone who usually received the notice because she didn’t think they would receive them in time considering the Fourth of July holiday. The district, at the time, believed the law required agenda requests be made in writing.
According to the ruling from the AG’s office, the law states all public bodies must mail a copy of meeting notices to “any person who has requested notice.” The law does not require such requests be made in writing.
However, because there is no proof Hulsey ever made a request for agendas, the AG’s office said they could not conclude a violation occurred.
“However, we strongly suggest that the board review these provisions of law, as well as its own procedures for their implementations, and assiduously adhere to them under all circumstances,” reads the statement written by C. Wayne Howle, senior deputy attorney general.
Howle said a violation was discovered, even though it was not alleged by Hulsey, during the office’s review of the complaint.
“We conclude that a serious violation of the open meeting law occurred at the board’s July 6, 2000 meeting when the board took action on an item which was not included on its published agenda,” Howle wrote. “Furthermore, there may have been a lapse in the board’s duty to supply mailed notices to persons who had requested notice, although the evidence of this is not conclusive.”
Howle also wrote the board did post the agendas in four public places before 9 a.m. of the third working day before the meeting.
The attorney general’s office is not going to take action against the board and recommended the meeting be held again with the proper notice.
“The board is warned to strictly adhere to the open meeting law for all future meetings, whether or not involving a closed session,” Howle wrote. “Finally, the board is warned that future noncompliance with the open meeting law may result in legal action against the board by this office.”
The district’s attorney, Tom Susich, said he had written to the AG’s office after Hulsey filed the allegation and argued that the requests for agendas should be made in writing.
“Given this opinion, we will modify that since there is nothing in the law. My advice (to the board) would be, if they get a verbal request for notice, they have to do it. I still think it is a bad procedure, because there is no way we can prove they did or didn’t (request agendas), which is what happened in this case. The clerk denies (Hulsey) specifically asked to be placed on the list,” Susich said.
He said this is the first time he can remember the board being accused of an open meeting violation.
Tuesday, DCSD communications coordinator Maggie Allen returned calls made to Clark’s office, saying Clark was extremely busy.
She said the board secretary was “appalled” when the mistake was drawn to her attention by the AG’s statement.
“It was just a clerical error,” Allen said. “Who do you know that hasn’t done that?”
Allen said it was important to note that the violation Hulsey alleged was unfounded.
“They found there was no basis for those violations. What they found was not an allegation she made, only that it was not marked for action,” Allen said.
She said the district is trying to contact the board members now to confirm they can discuss Clark’s contract extension again at the regular Nov. 14 meeting at Kingsbury Middle School.
Hulsey said while the AG’s office did not find in favor of the complaint she filed, she was glad the board will have to hold the meeting again.
“I want the the board to realize they made a mistake. I’m not really vindictive, but what’s right is right. They just need to admit they made a mistake and go fix it. The procedures help protect everybody. It keeps everybody honest,” Hulsey said. “I hope that they do it right this time. I hope they seek the public’s input on it this time. I’ve heard board members say how wonderful (Clark) is. But I’ve heard parents, teachers and community members complain about her.”
Board vice president Cheri Johnson said she doesn’t believe holding the meeting a second time will change the board’s vote.
“It was a clerical error and it’s unfortunate, but there was no malicious intent from the board at all,” Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate this had to happen at what I think is a critical juncture in this election. It absolutely shouldn’t (affect anyone’s vote). It has nothing to do with the issues in front of us, which is student achievement. Things like this are a wake-up call. It’s our obligation to be diligent and careful and we all recognize that.”
School board member Michele Lewis said she felt terrible that the mistake escaped unnoticed.
“I’m just devastated that this happened. I feel – not totally responsible – but I’ve been on the board 4-1/2 years, I should have noticed the agenda didn’t say it was an action item. I feel like I should have caught it. I don’t feel like this is Pat Corbitt’s fault. I don’t feel like it is Tom Susich’s fault,” Lewis said. “This provides an opportunity for us to talk about her contract or make this decision in public and I won’t, of course, change my opinion. The superintendent is evaluated on a number of goals and objectives we set forth a year in advance. At the evaluation meeting, which we had in closed session, we talked about the evaluation and how she had met the goals and objectives. This will give us the opportunity to talk about everything accomplished in public.”