Loudon BOE meeting in question

Loudon County Board of Education members, as well as three members of the public, met Thursday to discuss two policies the BOE plans to vote on in its regularly scheduled meeting Sept. 14.
“It was not necessarily a school board meeting because the school board did not vote and there was no agenda,” Jason Vance, Loudon County director of schools, said.
The meeting was originally supposed to be between Leroy Tate, board chairman, and Vance to set the agenda for the next meeting.
Tate wanted to invite three members of the public who had specific problems in past meetings with one of the policies and invited any members of the school board that “want to come and provide input.”
“In my opinion, the chairman of the school board wanted to give an opportunity for community members to share their voice with school board policy and as a result give me ample time to craft that policy for the next board meeting,” Vance said.
The office of open records counsel for the state comptroller’s office has not returned a request for clarification on whether the meeting Thursday constitutes the meeting of a governing body by the letter of the law, which would have required public notice be given before the meeting.
According to the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, “all meetings of any governing body are declared to be open to the public at all times, except as provided by the Constitution of Tennessee.”
The law defines a governing body as, “The members of any public body which consists of two or more members, with the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration.”
A meeting is defined as, “the convening of a governing body of a public body for which a quorum is required in order to make a decision or to deliberate toward a decision on any matter.”
Board members Tate, Scott Newman, Bobby Johnson Jr., Will Jenkins, Phil Moffat, Gary Ubben, Brian Brown and Ric Best were all present Thursday, and discussion revolved around what changes should be made to policies 1.407 and 1.403, Vance said.
“It’s my belief that they will (vote on the polices at the next meeting), yes,” Vance said.
While it is unclear exactly what was said during the meeting, Vance said members did provide input on policy changes.
“I can’t tell you if they violated the open meetings act,” Deborah Fisher, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government executive director, said. “I don’t know all the facts of what they said or did, but what I can say is if board members deliberated about a public policy in that meeting, then that should have been an open meeting, and there should have been notice given to the public.”
Vance called the meeting a “public forum” and said board members attended as members of the public, but outside of board members, only three members of the public were invited.
“They can certainly hear from people, but if the board members dicuss what to do … that kind of deliberation about what they’re going to do between the board members is what triggers the open meeting act,” Fisher said.
One of the two policies discussed during the meeting, 1.407, related to school board records and open records requests.
“Obviously, the policy on public records and access to public records should be open to the public,” Fisher said.
According to a copy of the revised policy that was handed out Thursday and later sent by Vance to the News-Herald, a section of the policy requiring requests go through a “public records request coordinator” appears to be slated for removal.
“The truth is, the law does not require that only one person can receive public records request,” Fisher said. “It may say this is a contact if you don’t know who to make requests to … but you cannot require it all go to one person because the law says that the records custodian has to reply to the public records request.“
The removal of the language would be a positive, Fisher said, but even so the meeting likely should have been advertised and open despite “good intentions.”

Keep meetings in the open

News Herald Editorial

Although the Loudon County Board of Education might not consider its gathering last week to discuss a pair of policy changes slated for the Sept. 14 meeting agenda an official meeting, state law is rather plain on the matter.
When two or more members of a governing body come together and “deliberate toward a decision on any matter,” Tennessee law says a meeting took place.
Jason Vance, Loudon County director of schools, acknowledged that a majority of the BOE met last week to discuss changes to a board policy regarding open records. Vance tried calling the meeting a “public forum” and suggested board members attended as members of the public to provide input. The problem? Only three other non-BOE members or school officials were even notified the meeting about an open records policy was taking place.
Frankly, could the subject matter of the meeting be more ironic?
Even if the BOE thought it was doing the right thing by inviting select members of the public who have been vocal about open meetings and open records to provide input, the board went about it the wrong way. If the board wanted public input on a policy impacting the public, they should have advertised the forum and made the general public aware.
Vance also suggested that last week’s gathering allowed him “ample time to craft that policy for the next board meeting.” Certainly that makes sense, but if the time between the BOE workshop and regular meeting — which are routinely held on the same day each month — fails to give Vance ample time to craft policy changes, then the BOE should either move the date of their workshops or hold proper called meetings or workshops when necessary.
While this newspaper was able to learn about Thursday’s meeting after the fact, what is not known is whether the BOE regularly meets privately to discuss and craft policies that will be voted on at a later time. The Tennessee Office for Open Records Counsel has not yet commented on the meeting and whether the BOE violated the open meetings act, but there can be no doubt the spirit of the law has been broken.
All of this raises the question of whether or not this is an exception or a pattern for the county BOE. And their action is yet another example of a troubling trend the News-Herald has noted recently among local governing bodies.
When a governing body meets to discuss policies or move toward making any kind of decision without informing the general public who elects them, trust is eroded. The lawful, and right, way to operate government is openly.
It’s just that simple.