Hours before the Mustang School Board publicly voted to approve a Bible-based curriculum, three members met secretly at the Hobby Lobby headquarters in small groups in an attempt to circumvent the Open Meeting Act, The Associated Press reported Wednesday.
Superintendent Sean McDaniel acknowledged insisting on separate presentations so the public wouldn’t have to be invited and that he did so at the direction of Hobby Lobby President Steve Green and his public relations folks, the AP reported.
“This was something that we wanted to be able to have conversation about and ask questions. If we have the media and the public coming into Hobby Lobby headquarters with us, that can just be confusing and awkward since we’re all seeing it for the first time,” McDaniel told the AP. “My thought was, ‘Hey, let’s hold off on having a public meeting until we see a little more.'”
Confusing? Awkward? More like outrageous contempt for the public.
The Open Meeting Act’s stated public policy is “to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry’s understanding of the governmental processes and governmental problems.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 25, § 302)
Public bodies must act within “both the spirit and purpose of the Open Meeting Act,” said then-Attorney General Jan Eric Cartwright. (1980 OK AG 144, ¶ 7)
Because the Open Meeting Act was “enacted for the public’s benefit,” the Oklahoma Supreme Court said, the statute “is to be construed liberally in favor of the public.” (Int’l Ass’n of Firefighters v. Thorpe, 1981 OK 95, ¶ 7)
The statute “must be given a construction which will effectuate and not subvert the intention of the Legislature in facilitating an informed citizenry’s right to participate in government and understand why government acts affecting their daily lives are taken,” Cartwright had said. (1980 OK AG 215, ¶ 12)
That means “the Act should be interpreted in such a way as to avoid establishing potential evasion loopholes,” he later said. (1982 OK AG 212, ¶ 13)
The principle is “very simple,” the state Court of Civil Appeals has said: “When in doubt, the members of any board, agency, authority or commission should follow the open-meeting policy of the State.” (Matter of Order Declaring Annexation, 1981 OK CIV APP 57, ¶ 18)
The three Mustang School Board members who participated in those secret meetings pissed on those principles.
The Open Meeting Act defines a meeting as “the conducting of business of a public body by a majority of its members being personally together or … together pursuant to a videoconference.” (Okla. Stat. tit. 25, § 304(2))
The AP story noted that board member Jeff Landrith didn’t attend but not which one of the other four also didn’t participate.
By having fewer than three members in each meeting, the school board avoided having a quorum. Someone must have thought that would allow the board to cleverly dodge the Open Meeting Act’s requirements that the public be notified and allowed to attend.
But the statute prohibits serial meetings in which one member obtains a consensus upon an item of business through a series of private one-on-one meetings, according to a 1981 attorney general opinion. (1981 OK AG 69, ¶ 17)
That prohibition on serial meetings also applies to the assistants of members of public bodies, then-District Attorney C. Wesley Lane II warned Oklahoma County commissioners in 2005.
The current Oklahoma County prosecutor told the AP that no one at one meeting could be present at the other to give information to the other school board members and that the board could take no action.
The AP reported McDaniel was present at both meetings April 14, as was Green and members of the curriculum design team and curators from the Green-backed Museum of the Bible.
This is important because the Open Meeting Act “reaches, not just ‘formal’ meetings, but the ‘entire decision-making process.'” (Matter of Order Declaring Annexation, Etc., 1981 OK CIV APP 57, ¶ 7)
“If an informed citizenry is to meaningfully participate in government or at least understand why government acts affecting their daily lives are taken, the process of decision making as well as the end results must be conducted in full view of the governed,” the state Supreme Court said. (Oklahoma Ass’n of Municipal Attorneys v. Derryberry, 1978 OK 59, ¶ 10)
Or as Cartwright later explained, “Public access to a mere ‘rubber stamp’ vote is all but useless. (1982 OK AG 212, ¶ 7)
“[I]t is clear that, when members of a public body meet informally and begin discussing matters affecting the public body, regardless of whether or not there is any motive to evade the Open Meeting Act, the discussion falls under the auspices of the Open Meeting Act. (Id. ¶ 11)
“An open deliberative process reveals rejected alternatives about which the public might not know if access to study sessions and deliberative meetings were denied. The public’s right to know would be defeated if a public body could hold a nonpublic ‘investigatory meeting’ to gain insight into a matter and then reform into a public meeting for the actual vote.” (Id. ¶ 5)
Cartwright said state Supreme Court decisions had made clear “that when a public body’s decision making or deliberation process is influenced by outside sources the requirements of the Open Meeting Act must be satisfied.” (Id. ¶ 6)
“The public is interested in how and why officials decide to act or not to act. Therefore, when a public body meets with experts in order to gain insight into a matter, the Open Meeting Act requirements must be satisfied,” he said.
McDaniel clearly wanted to keep the public out of the meetings. Shame on him but even more so on the three Mustang School Board members who went along with those secret meetings.
Those elected school board members should have more respect for the voters who put them in office. If they and Green don’t want the public present for their discussions, Green certainly has the money to start a private school for them to operate.
But if they want to oversee a public school district funded with tax dollars, they are obligated by law and by the dictates of good government to operate in the open. They should bend over backward to comply with the Open Meeting Act, not stoop so low to avoid it.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.